CARDINALS were celebrating a final Mass today before sequestering themselves in the Sistine Chapel for the conclave to elect the next pope.
Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Dean of the College of Cardinals, was leading today’s Mass in St Peter’s Basilica even though he is too old to vote.
This afternoon, 115 cardinals will file into the frescoed Sistine Chapel singing the Litany of Saints, a hypnotic Gregorian chant imploring the intercession of saints to help them choose a pope.
They will hear a meditation by an elderly Maltese cardinal, take an oath of secrecy, and then cast their first ballots.
The first puffs of smoke are expected to emerge from the chapel chimney by 8pm - black for no pope, white if a pope has been chosen.
The conclave by numbers
In the papal conclave that begins today, 115 cardinals will elect the next pope.
All of them were created either by Benedict XVI or Pope John Paul II, ensuring that whoever is chosen will follow in their conservative line.
Here is their geographic distribution:
EUROPE: 60 electors, or more than half the bloc. Italy alone claims 28, followed by Germany with six.
NORTH AMERICA: 14 electors, with 11 from the United States and three from Canada.
LATIN AMERICA: 19 electors. Brazil has the most with five.
AFRICA: 11 electors, with Nigeria counting two.
ASIA: 10 electors, with India counting five.
OCEANIA: One elector: Sydney Cardinal George Pell.