Cardinals gather one last time before conclave to elect new pope

Updated 11:00 PM EDT, Mon March 11, 2013

Story highlights

Tuesday's pre-conclave Mass will be open to the public, the Vatican says

Cardinals do not have to vote Tuesday but probably will, a Vatican spokesman says

Preparations are largely complete for the secret vote

The longest conclave in the 20th century lasted five days

Rome CNN —  

The Sistine Chapel is ready. The new pope’s clothes are laid out. Now it’s up to the cardinals.

The work to elect a successor to retired Pope Benedict XVI begins in earnest Tuesday, with a morning Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica.

The service – open to the public – will be the last public event featuring the 115 cardinals who will choose the new spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.

Cardinals taking part in the process will then walk to the Sistine Chapel, chanting prayers as they go, to begin the secret election called the conclave.

After that, the only clue the world will have of what is happening inside will be periodic puffs of smoke from a copper chimney installed over the weekend in the Sistine Chapel.

Black smoke, no pope. White smoke, success.

Rome was abuzz Monday with preparations for the conclave, from the 5,600 journalists the Vatican said had been accredited to cover the event to the red curtains unfurled from the central balcony at St. Peter’s, the spot where the world will meet the new pope once he is elected.

Tailors have also completed sets of clothes for the new pope to wear as soon as he is elected.

Video released by the Vatican over the weekend showed the installation of a pair of stoves inside the chapel. One is used to burn the cardinals’ ballots after they are cast and the other to send up the smoke signal – the one that alerts the world that a vote has been taken and whether there’s a new pope.

Workers could be seen scaling the roof of the chapel Saturday to install the chimneys that will carry the smoke signals to the world.

When we’ll see the first smoke is anyone’s guess.

The cardinals will probably vote Tuesday, but they don’t have to, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said Monday.

If they do, it’s likely the first smoke might be seen around 8 p.m. (3 p.m. ET), he said.

When cardinals elected Benedict in 2005, the white smoke signaling the decision came about six hours after an earlier, inconclusive vote, he said.

It took another 50 minutes for Benedict to dress, pray and finally appear on the balcony of St. Peter’s, he said.