VATICAN CITY (AP) — Bringing their suitcases and personal views on the future of the church, the cardinals who will select the next pope settled in their rooms yesterday in the Vatican hotel that will be their home until the world’s 1.1 billion Roman Catholics have a new leader.

Ken Srdjak
The College of Cardinals is holding daily meetings ahead of a secret vote later this month to elect a successor to Pope John Paul II.(AP PHOTO)

The conclave starts today after the 115 red-robed cardinals join a formal procession into the Sistine Chapel, where efforts to maintain the secrecy of deliberations have included installing jamming devices to foil sophisticated eavesdropping equipment.

But the cardinals’ arrival at the $20 million Domus Sanctae Marthae took them into the imposed isolation of the papal election — which has not lasted longer than five days in the past century but remains an open-ended process. The last conclave in 1978 took eight ballots over three days to choose Pope John Paul II.

“The new pope has already been chosen by the Lord. We just have to pray to understand who he is,” Florence Cardinal Ennio Antonelli told the congregation at St. Andrea delle Fratte, his titular church a short stroll from Rome’s famous Spanish Steps.

The cardinals have much to ponder following the third-longest papacy in history.

This conclave feels the full weight of the church’s modern challenges, including the influence of Islam, competition from evangelical Christians, the fallout from priest sex scandals, the roles of women and the need to reconcile Vatican teachings that ban condom use with worries about AIDS. They also must seek a global pastor with enough charisma to flourish in an image-driven age.

For the first time, credible papal contenders come from at least three distinct regions: Europe, Africa and Latin America.

One by one, in cars driven by aides through a steady rain, the cardinals arrived at the gates of Vatican City. They were saluted by a single Swiss Guard, wearing a dark foul-weather cloak over his traditional purple-gold-and-red uniform. The cars passed over the gray cobblestones to the hotel — which John Paul ordered built to end the spartan and makeshift quarters arranged for past conclaves.

The rules of the conclave are strict: no phones, television, publications or outside contact. All staff — including cooks, maids, elevator operators and drivers who will shuttle them the few hundred yards from the hotel to the Sistine Chapel — have taken vows of silence.

For the first time ever, cardinals will be allowed to move about Vatican City freely once the voting starts, though they are forbidden to talk to anyone who hasn’t been sworn to secrecy. The penalty is severe — excommunication.

At the North American College seminary, some of the 11 U.S. cardinals joining the conclave posed for a group photograph before making the five-minute trip to the Vatican. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles carried a set of red robes in a clear garment bag and a small overnight bag hung from one shoulder. They made no comments to reporters.

The Turin daily newspaper La Stampa reported that many cardinals, preparing for a stressful stretch ahead, had packed compact disc players and headphones along with prayer books and their red hats. Other prelates, it reported, brought along favorite snacks.

The public will get one more chance to view the cardinals before they begin their deliberations. This morning, a special Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica is scheduled in the memory of John Paul, who died April 2 at the age of 84 and is buried with many other popes in the grottoes reached by stairs near the altar.

Later in the day, the cardinals will gather in the Apostolic Palace for a procession to the Sistine Chapel while chanting a hymn seeking inspiration from the Holy Spirit.

The cardinals then hear a prayer in Latin by the dean of the College of Cardinals, German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, to be guided “in our hearts in love and in patience.” Ratzinger, 78, is considered a possible papal candidate.

Once inside the chapel, the prelates can decide to hold a single ballot. If not, they will begin voting tomorrow morning with four ballots a day. At least 77 votes — or two-thirds of attending — are needed to elect a pontiff during initial balloting. Under rules updated in 1996 by the late pontiff, it could shrink to a simple majority at some point in the second week.

Another new element comes with this conclave: Bells will ring after a new pope is chosen in an effort to avoid confusion over the color of smoke wafting from the chapel’s chimney. The smoke is black if balloting fails to produce a pontiff and white if a choice is made.

The next pope’s name will be announced from the central balcony of the basilica a short time later.

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