Cardinals gather one last time before conclave to elect new pope

ROME — 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.

The longest conclave held since the turn of the 20th century lasted five days.

On Monday, cardinals held the last of several days of meetings to discuss church affairs and get acquainted. Lombardi said 152 cardinals were on hand for the final meeting.

Church rules prevent cardinals over the age of 80 from participating in the election of a pope but allow them to attend the “General Congregations” that precede the vote.

On Friday, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, one of about a dozen leading candidates to become pope, said the meetings have focused less on scandals facing the church and more on spiritual matters.

“We cardinals sure are praying a lot,” Dolan wrote.

Contrary to media reports, he wrote in a blog post, the focus of the cardinals’ meetings is much the same as it was two millenniums ago, namely: “How most effectively to present the Person, message, and invitation of Jesus to a world that, while searching for salvation and eternal truth, are also at times doubting, skeptical, too busy, or frustrated.”

He said, “Those are the ‘big issues.’ You may find that hard to believe, since the ‘word on the street’ is that all we talk about is corruption in the Vatican, sexual abuse, money. Do these topics come up? Yes! Do they dominate? No!”

The scandals came up again Monday when the Vatican Press Office denied conclave accreditation to Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, who wrote a book about scandals within the Vatican. The book was based partly on documents leaked from Benedict’s personal apartments.

Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi told CNN the accreditation had been denied because Nuzzi applied as a documentary filmmaker, not as a journalist.

Meanwhile, the Italian press is full of speculation about which cardinal may win enough support from his counterparts to be elected, and what regional alliances are being formed.

The United States has 11 of the 115 votes, making it the second largest national bloc after Italy.

Sixty of the cardinals are from Europe and 67 were appointed by Benedict, who stepped down at the end of last month, becoming the first pontiff to do so in six centuries.

— CNN’s Dan Rivers and Richard Allen Greene reported from Rome, and Michael Pearson wrote in Atlanta. CNN’s Ed Payne and Hada Messia and journalist Livia Borghese also contributed to this report.