for National Geographic News
Pope John Paul II's death today sets in motion a riveting mix of Roman Catholic rituals and centuries-old customs, all set against a backdrop of secret political intrigue.
The height of the public spectacle will be a grand funeral mass watched over by the elders of the church, protected by the Vatican's Swiss Guard security force, and attended by heads of state.
But much of the ceremony leading up to the naming of a new pope will take place behind closed doors. The church holds firmly to its traditions, and secrecy is among the traditions it honors best.
"Most of what goes on, with the exception of the funeral masses, nobody will see," said John L. Allen, Jr., author and Vatican correspondent for National Catholic Reporter. "All the mystery and intrigue surrounding this is part of its attraction."
The conclave, the process by which a new pope is chosen, will commence 15 to 20 days after the death of the Pope John Paul II.
One reason for the delay is to give cardinals the opportunity to participate in funeral masses for the pontiff. Another reason harks back to less modern times, when cardinals needed weeks to travel by horse or rail to the Vatican.
After taking an oath of secrecy in the Sistine Chapel, an official will call the Latin words extra omnes, meaning "everyone out." From that point on, the outside world will see only what the church wants them to see: a twice-daily puff of smoke.
Coming from within the Sistine Chapel, the smoke signal will tell the world that the cardinals have conducted one of their many votes during the electoral process.
The 117 cardinal-electors are required to vote morning and evening. They will pray and place their handwritten ballots in a chalice atop an altar. To safeguard the secrecy of the vote, the ballots will be counted and then burned.
If the cardinals don't reach the two-thirds majority needed to elect a new pope, the ballots will be mixed with a chemical to create wisps of black smoke when burned.
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