by John Carey Today, nearly two weeks after the death of Pope Paul, I I I cardinals will file into the conclave area to begin the formal process of electing a new Pope.
The long delay has given rise to the feeling that the conclave will be short, with a decision likely to emerge early next week.
No clear favourite has yet emerged, but by now the cardinals will have gained a fairly clear picture at least of the sort of man they are looking for and of the problems he will face.
As Cardinal Konig of Vienna, who has himself been named as a possible successor, said at a Press conference in Rome this week: "Whoever occupies the Papal Throne will find clearly defined problems before him: the struggle for peace, ecumenism, the continuation of the realisation of the Council and the contacts with the world of today."
Cardinal Ktinig continued: "It is not important whether the next Pope is an Italian or not. But he must have the necessary qualities."
Meanwhile the practical preparations for the conclave have been progressing smoothly, despite rumours of discontent among Vatican staff who were said to be up in arms because they had not received a special bonus, traditionally paid for extra work caused by the death of a Pope.
Last week the Vatican carried out a test on the old cast-iron stove which is used to signal, by smoke, whether or not a new Pope has been elected. This year chemicals are to be added to the straw which is burnt, to help make it more clearly black or white.
The move is intended to avoid confusion of the sort that arose during the 1958 conclave. Then, on the first day of voting, billows of white smoke poured from the chimney on the Sistine Chapel and thousands waiting in St Peter's Square broke into cheers, believing that a new Pope had been elected. But the signal proved to be a false alarm.
Inside the chapel itself the floor has been covered and raised with a wooden platform, while 11 tables have been prepared for the cardinals instead of the original thrones and canopies of former years.
The death last week of Cardinal Paul Yu Pin of Nanking has reduced the number of participating Cardinals to I 11. Of the original 115 who were eligible to vote, three others will miss the conclave because of ill ness. They are Cardinals John Wright, retired Archbishop of Boston; Valerian Gracias, of Bombay, and Filipiak of Griezno, Poland.
The rest will assemble in the Sistine Chapel this evening. There they will take the solemn oath of
secrecy binding them not to accept a veto from any civil authority, however informally expressed, and not to lend "aid or favour" to "interference or opposition" from any secular body or group of individuals.
A roll call will then be taken to ensure that no one "extraneous to the conclave" is present, before the conclave area is secured from within and without.
As always, tight security will be maintained. Among the assistants allowed to enter the conclave are two technicians who have the job of testing the area regularly for the presence of "bugging" or recording devices.
No assistant is allowed to speak to the cardinal-electors except in the presence of an approved prelate, and the cardinals are forbidden either to send or receive letters or messages unless they have been examined and passed. No newspapers or magazines are allowed.
The first ballot will be taken tomorrow morning. Following detailed instructions issued by Pope Paul in 1975, each cardinal must write the name of his choice in disguised handwriting.
Each ballot takes about two or three hours to complete. If the first is inconclusive, a second follows immediately. Should that also not resolve the issue, two more are allowed in the afternoon.
Pope Paul declared that if no decision had been reached after three days, voting was to be suspended for a day to allow time for prayer and discussion. The same happens after seven days if the cardinals cannot agree.
In the unlikely event of the conclave lasting that long the cardinals will be hoping to avoid disturbances of the sort that disrupted the longest conclave in the history of the Church, which went on for nearly two and a half years. Then the angry citizens of Viterbo locked the cardinals in, stopped all food supplies and removed the roof so that the rain could spur them into a decision.
On another occasion, in the 19th century, a bomb was exploded outside the Quirinale in Rome after the election had been going on for three months.
As soon as a cardinal is elected and his name announced within the conclave he must make two immediate decisions: whether to accept, and if he does, what name he will take. After that he is led into a side room where he is fitted with one of the three pontifical robes which will have been prepared beforehand — one large, one medium and one small.
On his return to the Sistine Chapel the cardinals take their oath of obedience. Meanwhile the white smoke will belch from the chimney proclaimimg that the conclave is over and a new Pope elected.
Cardinal Felici, the Cardinal Deacon, will then make his way to the main balcony of St Peter's and announce to the world: "Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: habemus Papam." ("I announce to you a great joy: we have a Pope.").
And then the Pope will step forward to deliver his first Apostolic Blessing, Urbi et Orbi.
• Archbishop Bruno Heim, the Apolostic Delegate in the United Kingdom, has a special interest in who the successor to Pope Paul is to be. He is waiting to put the finishing touches to his book "Heraldry in the Catholic Church" and his publishers want to include the new coat of arms. The book is due to be published in October.