VATICAN CITY - Cardinals had a few last hours to confer with aides or pray with faithful before required check-in at a top-security hotel in Vatican City on Sunday, a day before they will be sequestered in secret sessions in the Sistine Chapel to elect the next pope.
Many Vatican observers expect the conclave to likely last two or three days after voting begins either Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning, but the ritual-filled election process to choose Pope John Paul II's successor can last many more days or even longer.
Rank-and-file Catholics were invited to join the cardinals on Monday morning in one final public ceremony in St. Peter's Basilica, following the end on Saturday of a series of Masses to mourn John Paul, who died on April 2.
Late Monday afternoon, the cardinals will gather in the Apostolic Palace for a procession to the Sistine Chapel for a first session. The cardinals will hear a prayer in Latin, by the dean of the College of Cardinals, German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, that they be guided "in our hearts in love and in patience."
Once inside the chapel, the prelates can decide to hold a first ballot late Monday afternoon, or continue to reflect and begin voting on Tuesday morning.
The Turin daily La Stampa said many cardinals, gearing up for a stressful stretch of days, had packed compact disc players and headphones in their bags along with prayer books and their red hats.
Other prelates, it reported, found space in their suitcases for snacks to nibble on in their rooms in the $20 million Domus Sanctae Marthae hotel. John Paul had the residence constructed on the tiny city-state's grounds so cardinals could rest in more comfort in private rooms between voting sessions in the chapel.
When the last conclaves were held, in 1978, including the one which chose John Paul, the cardinals - many of them elderly - spent uncomfortable nights in makeshift cubicles and had to share bathrooms as part of their accommodations in the Apostolic Palace.
While creature comforts have improved, rules made by John Paul in 1996 banned cell phones, TV, radios and newspapers during the conclave to reduce the possibility cardinals could be influenced by outside news while they reflect on the man who will lead the world's 1.1 billion Catholics.
The Rome daily La Repubblica reported that in the final hours before they are shrouded in secrecy, there seemed to be no clear indication of how the initial voting might go.
Italians, with 20 cardinals, are the biggest national bloc of the 115 voting churchmen. But the newspaper's Vatican expert, Marco Politi, wrote that the Italians, whose 455-year-old hold the papacy was broken by John Paul II's election, were divided and that there was no European or Third World candidate who had captured the prelates' imaginations. Voting cardinals decided days ago not to give interview before the vote, and it was not clear what La Repubblica's assessment was based on.
Italian cardinal Salvatore Pappalardo, who at 86 is too old to vote, indicated in remarks on Italian state radio Sunday that he thought his younger peers would be looking for a candidate who would be in tune with global problems - particularly issues of justice, peace and even the environment.
"He will promote the values of the world that don't go against the Gospel," said Pappalardo, who spoke out against the Sicilian Mafia when he was Palermo's archbishop.
"Providence sends a pope (to meet the needs) of every era," he said.
Following solemn tradition, cardinals on Saturday destroyed John Paul Fisherman's Ring and lead seal to formally end his reign.
The next pope's name will be announced from the central balcony of the basilica, a short time after tolling bells and puffs of white smoke from the chapel stove will signal to the world that the cardinals have chosen the latest in a line of popes dating two millennia to St. Peter, the first pontiff.
On Saturday, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said expert technicians from the Holy See's security staff had made sure no communication would leak from the chapel before the traditional smoke could be sent up.
The hotel also was swept for potential sources of security breaches, and all staff assisting the cardinals - including cooks, maids, elevator operators and the drivers who will shuttle them the few hundred meters (yards) from the hotel to the chapel - have taken vows of silence.
The cardinals take their own oath of secrecy after they enter the chapel at 4:30 p.m. Monday.