Following the surprise resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, and his departure Feb. 28 for a two-month sojourn at Castel Gandolfo, the papal retreat outside Rome, the Vatican has been preparing for the centuries-old process of choosing a new pontiff. Today, the Sistine Chapel, where the secret conclave will convene, was closed to visitors, and only a handful of the expected 115 Cardinals from around the world have yet to arrive.
It is expected that the cardinals might begin their work as soon as Monday, paving the way for selection of a new leader for the church of 1.1 billion followers prior to the beginning of Holy Week with Palm Sunday on March 24. Traditionally, the papal succession proceeding cannot begin before a period of at least 15 days has passed, allowing for burial of the previous pope, but this might be a special case. The circumstances certainly are.
Pope Benedict, who served in the post for less than eight years, is the first to resign in six centuries. The 85-year-old Bavarian cleric was the 265th pope of the Catholic Church, but will in the future be known as pope emeritus, and plans to retire to a monastic apartment within the Vatican complex.
As in the past, the selection of a new pope will be eagerly anticipated; and announced to the world with a puff of white smoke billowing from a stack through the roof of the Sistine Chapel. Delegates, all Cardinals of the Church under the age of 80, are sequestered and shielded from outside influences for as long as the process requires, and each unsuccessful balloting attempt is marked only by black smoke.
Over the next few days, as the selection process continues, we will share with you some of the flavor and history of this historic time and place.