VATICAN CITY, April 3 -- In a parade of red hats and sashes, the modern princes of the Roman Catholic Church will file into the frescoed Bologna Hall of the Vatican's Apostolic Palace on Monday for the first meeting of the College of Cardinals since the death of Pope John Paul II.
Officially, their purpose will be to set the date of John Paul's funeral, most likely Thursday or Friday. Unofficially, they will kick off the Vatican's election season, a two- or three-week burst of politicking.
Before the death of a pope, any discussion by the cardinals of the next supreme pontiff is forbidden. The rule dates back nearly 1,500 years, to the reign of Pope Felix IV, who created enormous resentment by trying to engineer the election of his successor.
Fifteen to 20 days after John Paul's death, the 117 cardinals who are younger than 80 years old will enter the Sistine Chapel to start voting for a new pope under the utmost secrecy, after a cry of "Extra omnes!" Latin for "Everyone else out!"
In the interim, during the brief period between the pope's death and the conclave to choose a replacement, all 183 members of the College of Cardinals -- including 66 who are too old to vote -- will meet daily in formal sessions known as General Congregations.
More important, though, the cardinals will begin informal conversations over meals, in private residences and during quiet strolls through the Vatican grounds. If the past is any guide, these conversations will be used to sound out one another about the issues facing the church and who might best tackle them.
Summoned to Rome as soon as John Paul died Saturday night, cardinals began flocking here over the weekend from 65 countries on five continents. The first of the U.S.-based contingent to arrive was Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles.
The selection of a new pope follows time-worn rules, but almost none of the 117 voting cardinals have participated in the process before. All but three were appointed over the last 26 years by John Paul. Most will be learning as they go, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington told reporters last week.
Moreover, all of the cardinals know some of their colleagues, but few, if any, know everyone. Because they do not share a common language, their conversations are likely to take place in a mixture of Italian, Spanish and English, Mahony said.
Long dominated by Italians, the College of Cardinals has been thoroughly internationalized over the past 35 years. Fewer than half of the voting members are West Europeans, though many of the rest have lived in Rome or studied in Europe for long periods.
Italians still are the largest national contingent, with 20 cardinals, or 17 percent of those under 80. The United States is second, with 11. But developing countries and former Soviet bloc states are also strongly represented. There are 21 Latin Americans, 12 East Europeans, 11 Africans and 11 Asians.
For those handicapping the election, that means there is a fair chance that John Paul, who was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years, will be followed by one from the Third World, such as Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze. Asked about the possibility of an African pope, McCarrick said: "It would be wonderful if the Lord gives us that choice. I'd have no problem with it. I think the Lord is colorblind."
By comparison with almost any other election campaign, the discussions that precede the choosing of a new pope are unusually concentrated in time and subdued in manner. Some Vatican officials resist any comparison to secular politics, saying the entire process is guided by the Holy Spirit.
Yet accounts by participants in previous papal elections, as well as suggestive comments by key figures in the upcoming one, make clear that major issues for the future of the church are at stake -- just not the ones that some U.S. Catholics might hope for or imagine.