VATICAN CITY (AP) — Cardinals celebrated a final Mass on Tuesday before sequestering themselves in the Sistine Chapel for the conclave to elect the next pope, seeking to overcome their divisions and rally behind a single man who can lead the 1.2 billion-strong Catholic Church and tend to its many problems.
As a Gregorian chant filled St. Peter’s Basilica, the 115 cardinals who will participate in the conclave filed in wearing bright red vestments, many looking grim as if the burden of the imminent vote was weighing on them.
Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, presided. All of the cardinals were concelebrating with him in a show of unity among a divided group of men from around the globe who have for the past week heard about the various problems of the church and tried to decide who best among them can fix them.
In the afternoon, the 115 cardinal electors will file into the frescoed Sistine Chapel singing the Litany of Saints, a hypnotic chant imploring the intercession of saints to help them choose a pope. They will hear a meditation by an elderly Maltese cardinal, take an oath of secrecy, then in all probability cast their first ballots.
Assuming they vote, the first puffs of smoke should emerge from the chapel chimney by 8 p.m. (1900 GMT; 3 p.m. EDT) — black for no pope, white if a pope has been chosen.
In an opening prayer Tuesday, Sodano asked that God “grant in your boundless fatherly love a pastor for your church who will please you by his holiness and to us show watchful care.”
The conclave is taking place amid more upheaval and uncertainty than the church has seen in decades: There’s no front-runner, no indication how long voting will last and no sense that a single man has what it takes to be pope.
Going into the vote, cardinals offered wildly different assessments of what they’re looking for in the next pontiff and how close they are to a decision. It was evidence that Benedict XVI’s surprise resignation has continued to destabilize the church leadership and that his final appeal for unity may go unheeded, at least in the early rounds of voting.
A few cardinals also sent their last tweets before entering the conclave, which forbids communication with the outside world.
“Heavenly Father, guide our hearts and grant us wisdom and strength tomorrow,” Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, considered to have an outside chance to be pope, tweeted late Monday.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.