After the votes are counted, and the outcomes announced, the papers are bound together with a needle and thread, each ballot pierced through the word "Eligo." The ballots are then placed in a cast-iron stove and burned with a special chemical.
That's when all eyes will turn to the 6-foot-high copper chimney erected atop the Sistine Chapel to pipe out puffs of smoke to tell the world if there's a new pope.
Black smoke means "not yet" — the likely outcome after Round 1. White smoke means the 266th pope has been chosen.
The first puffs of smoke should emerge sometime around 8 p.m. Tuesday. If they are black, voting will continue, four rounds each day, until a pope is elected.
Whoever he is, the next pope will face a church in crisis: Benedict spent his eight-year pontificate trying to revive Catholicism amid the secular trends that have made it almost irrelevant in places like Europe, once a stronghold of Christianity. Clerical sex abuse scandals have soured many faithful on their church, and competition from rival evangelical churches in Latin America and Africa has drawn souls away.
Closer to home, the next pope has a major challenge awaiting him inside the Vatican walls, after the leaks of papal documents in 2012 exposed ugly turf battles, allegations of corruption and even a plot purportedly orchestrated by Benedict's aides to out a prominent Italian Catholic editor as gay.
Cardinals heard a briefing Monday from the Vatican No. 2 about another stain on the Holy See's reputation, the Vatican bank. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who heads the commission of cardinals overseeing the scandal-marred Institute for Religious Works, outlined the efforts to clean up the bank's image in international financial circles.
Massimo Franco, noted columnist for the leading daily Corriere della Sera, said the significance of the revelations about the bank and the Holy See's internal governance cannot be underestimated, since they were factors in Benedict's decision to resign and the major task faced by his successor.
Franco, whose new book "The Crisis of the Vatican Empire" describes the Vatican's utter dysfunction, said cardinals are still traumatized by Benedict's resignation, leading to uncertainty heading into the conclave.
"It's quite unpredictable. There isn't a majority, neither established nor in the making," he said — unlike in 2005, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had tremendous front-runner status going into the conclave that elected him pope after just four ballots.
Dolan, a possible papal contender, seemed to think otherwise, though, and was bounding with optimism by the end of the pre-conclave meetings and the drama about to unfold.
"I'm kind of happy they're over because we came here to elect a pope and we'll start it tomorrow with the holy sacrifice of the Mass, then into the conclave and look for the white smoke!" Dolan enthused on his radio show on SiriusXM's "The Catholic Channel."
Errazuriz, the cardinal from Chile, said the key isn't so much where the next pope comes from, but what he brings to the papacy.
Cardinals, he told AP, are looking for a pope "who is close to God, has love for people, the poorest, the ability to preach the Gospel to the world and understand the young and bring them closer to God. These are the categories that count."
He argued that Latin America, counting 40 percent of the world's Catholics, is underrepresented in the college of cardinals. "It doesn't have 40 percent of the cardinals," he said.
Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, also a leading papal contender, said he was going into the conclave still rattled by the fact that his mentor, Benedict, had resigned.
"It made me cry. He was my teacher. We worked together for over 40 years," Schoenborn said during a Mass late Sunday. Nevertheless, Schoenborn said the cardinals had banded together to face the future.
"It makes us brothers, not contenders," he said. "Such a surprising act has already begun a true renewal."
Reporters Jorge Pina and Daniela Petroff contributed.
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