An elite group of pilgrims flocked to Rome, princes of the church who have started sizing each other up and expressing their views before the cardinals closet themselves in the Sistine Chapel to elect one among them as the next pope.
Some of the cardinals flew to Rome while John Paul II was still dying, at the risk of seeming too eager to be visible. Others lingered at home to comfort the faithful in their diocese before heading to Rome for the funeral and the secret voting sessions of the conclave.
Either way, politicking vied with piety as the cardinals spoke before congregations in cathedrals or gaggles of microphones at airports.
"Only the Holy Spirit knows who the successor is to His Holiness, although it makes me happy that I'm mentioned so that the world knows that good things exist in Honduras," said Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga (search), archbishop of Tegucigalpa, a "papabile" — an Italian word meaning "possessing pope potential."
Being in possible pole position might or might not be an advantage. An Italian bishop, Libero Tresoldi (search), reminded reporters in Milan's Gothic cathedral about the oft-quoted proverb warning cardinals against overconfidence in being elected: "He who enters a conclave as pope leaves as a cardinal."
Tresoldi, from northern Italy, appeared concerned that a remark Sunday by Milan Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi would put him in the proverb's risk category. Tettamanzi, 61, spoke of a "very affectionate caress" that John Paul gave him three years ago when tapped to lead the high-profile diocese.
Bishop Tresoldi apparently fretted that it appeared the cardinal was depicting himself as a favorite of the widely beloved John Paul II.
Paris' cardinal, Jean-Marie Lustiger, who at 78 is two years under the cutoff age to be eligible to vote for the next pope, gave short shrift to the widely circulated lists of touted candidates.
"All the names that have surfaced have been invented by journalists because in general, what happens is that most of the time, those who get it are completely unexpected," he said. "We'll know [who it is] when the next pope is elected."
John Paul II himself confounded practically every "papabile" list going into the October 1978 conclave. As Karol Wojtyla, cardinal of Krakow, Poland, he was the first non-Italian to become pope in 455 years.
At the conclave, Lustiger said, cardinals will be "kept, until the time we've elected the pope, without any communication with the outside. There will be no journalists, no cell phones, no radio, no telephones. We're just among each other, faced with God and our responsibilities."
In revised rules in 1996, John Paul excluded the use of sophisticated communications equipment in a bid to safeguard the secrecy of the conclave.
Florence's cardinal, Archbishop Ennio Antonelli, recommended "intense prayer" as a way to deepen understanding of his colleagues in the College of Cardinals.
But Web sites — not available during the last conclave — can help cardinals take stock of their colleagues' merits and priorities. The archdiocese of Bombay Cardinal Ivan Dias, for example, features a survey of parishioners on some of the burning issues facing the Church. The current site asks whether abortion is "morally acceptable."
Finding someone to fill the shoes of John Paul — the third longest-serving pontiff in 2,000 years, a polyglot with a savvy understanding of the media who was a fearless exponent of social and moral issues — is certainly an intimidating task.
But retired Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, among those praying in St. Peter's Square Saturday night as John Paul lay dying in his Vatican apartment, told the U.S. network ABC television it would be "major mistake to try to clone him."
One oft-cited contender, Cardinal Claudio Hummes of Sao Paulo, Brazil, depicted the field as wide open.
Asked about rumors that the next pope could come from Latin America, where Protestants have been gaining ground in the historically Catholic continent, Hummes replied: "In the conclave, all these things will be secondary."
"It won't matter where he comes from, from which continent," he said. "It will matter that the cardinals will be in front of God, under oath, and they will have to chose the one they think is the man for this moment in the history of the church and the world."