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Cardinals in Sistine Chapel for historic conclave to pick pope

  No favourite to lead world's 1.2 billion Catholics


VATICAN CITY: Roman Catholic cardinals chanted and prayed for divine guidance in the Sistine Chapel today as they prepared for a conclave to elect a pope who will face one of the most difficult periods in the Church’s history.

The 115 red-hatted and red-caped cardinals gathered in the Pauline Chapel and walked in procession along the frescoed halls of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace into the Sistine, where they could remain closeted for several days of balloting.

“The entire Church, united with us in prayer, asks for the grace of the Holy Spirit at this moment so that we elect a worthy shepherd for the entire flock of Christ,” a cardinal said in Latin as the procession began.

They then chanted what is known as the “litany of saints”, asking more than 150 saints by name for help in making their choice of who should succeed Benedict XVI, who has withdrawn from public life after his surprise abdication last month.

Once inside the Sistine they took their places along the walls of the frescoed chapel and sang a hymn to the Holy Spirit, asking it to “visit our minds” during the election process.

They then read an oath in Latin, promising to abide by all the rules of the conclave, including not to reveal anything that goes on during the conclave.

The cardinals may well decide to cast a first ballot as early as Tuesday night after the doors of the chapel, one of the world’s greatest art treasures, are closed and the cardinals are sequestered inside to conduct their secret discussions.

If they vote, the first outcome is likely to be inconclusive because there is no frontrunner to succeed Benedict, who became the first pope in centuries to step down, saying he was not strong enough at 85 to confront the woes of a Church whose 1.2 billion members look to Rome for leadership.

Smoke — white for a new pontiff, black after an inconclusive vote — would emerge from the chimney on the Sistine’s roof if a ballot were held. The balloting for the next pontiff will take place under the gaze of the divine presence represented through Michelangelo’s fresco of the Last Judgment on the wall behind the altar. The chapel has been swept for bugs and installed with jamming devices.

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