Cardinals gather to choose new Pope

The cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church will file into the 15th-century Sistine Chapel today to begin their secret election of a successor to retired Pope Benedict XVI.

Cardinals under the voting-age limit of 80, who total 115, will enter the so-called conclave at 4:30 p.m. in Rome after asking for God’s guidance at a mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Hailing from six continents, the red-hatted “princes of the church” will choose a new leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics amid a waning church presence in Europe and North America and expansion in Asia and Africa. The elections of John Paul II in 1978 and his successor Benedict in 2005 took three days and two days, respectively. One 13th-century conclave dragged on for three years.

On entering the conclave, cardinals and supporting staff must take a vow of secrecy. Under rules updated by Benedict, violating the vow brings automatic excommunication. During the conclave cardinals must remain in the Sistine Chapel, adorned with Michelangelo’s frescoes, or their lodgings in the Vatican.

Only one ballot is held on the first day of the conclave, after which as many as four votes a day can be conducted.

When no candidate wins the required two-thirds of the votes, ballots are burned with a chemical to emit black smoke over St. Peter’s Square. White smoke signals a new pope, who is later accompanied to a balcony over St. Peter’s Square with the proclamation “Habemus Papam,” Latin for “We have a pope.”

Of the 115 cardinal electors, sixty-seven were created by Benedict and 48 by John Paul II. They spent the last week with cardinals above the voting age discussing challenges facing the church and sizing up papal candidates, including possibly electing the first non-European pope in more than a millennium.

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