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Signs of Papal Passing

A closed bronze door. Drawn shutters. Tolling bells. Somber music. They are all signs that a pontiff has passed.

Over the centuries, the most traditional and telling signal that a pope has died has been the tolling of the Vatican's bells, which prompts churches across Rome to join in.

But there is also the symbolic shutting of the Bronze Door, a massive portal beneath a portico off St. Peter's Square (search) that is closed when a pope dies and is kept shut until a new pontiff is elected.

Its modern use is spotty. In 1978, when two popes died in rapid succession, the tradition was ignored. Under normal circumstances, the Bronze Door (search) is closed every night at about 8 p.m. and reopened in the morning, making it unsuitable for a nighttime announcement.

And papal observers say it's not clear whether the shutting of the door even in daytime would precede or follow an official announcement.

Pope-watchers also are keeping an eye on the shutters of the two windows at the side of Pope John Paul II (search)'s third-floor apartment overlooking St. Peter's Square. Some say the closing of the shutters can be the first tangible sign of a death.

Tradition dictates that the pope's vicar for Rome, Cardinal Camillo Ruini (search), would make a formal announcement to Romans. The Vatican almost certainly would have made an earlier announcement to the media, either via Vatican Radio, which then plays somber music, or through the pope's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, meaning the world would know by the time Ruini read out the news.

The formal Vatican tradition goes like this:

When a pope dies, the prefect of the papal household, currently American Archbishop James Harvey, tells the camerlengo, or chamberlain, who is the most important official running the Holy See in the period between the death of a pope and the election of a new one.

The camerlengo, now Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo of Spain, must then verify the death — a process which in the past was done by striking the forehead of the pope with a silver hammer. The camerlengo then calls out to the pope three times by his baptismal name — Karol, Karol, Karol. When the pope does not respond, the camerlengo then announces "the pope is dead."

The camerlengo uses the silver hammer to smash the pope's ring — the papal seal or "ring of the fisherman" — to preclude forgery of official documents.

He then tells the vicar of Rome, who informs the people of the city.

The prefect of the papal household then tells the dean of the College of Cardinals, now Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who then formally informs the rest of the college, ambassadors accredited to the Holy See, and heads of state around the world.