It’s a process enveloped in mystery, secrecy and spirituality. The selection of the next Roman Catholic pope will unfold before our eyes — or rather, out of sight — beginning Monday in Vatican City.
Lucky for us, we have Dan Brown's (search) historical thriller "Angels & Demons" (search) to help shed some light on what is going on among members of the College of Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel. Right?
Many Americans seem to agree, as sales of 2000's "Angels & Demons" — about a terrorist plot against the Vatican during a secret conclave to elect a new pope — have gone up since John Paul II's (search) April 2 death, according to the novel's publisher.
"What is said in 'Angels & Demons' has become the touchstone for many people for what to expect," said Dan Burstein, co-author of "Secrets of Angels & Demons" (search), an unauthorized book that tries to decode the best-selling Brown novel and separate fact from fiction.
But some experts say don't believe everything you read.
"Let's be clear, folks — it's fiction," Tom Roberts, editor of the independent news weekly National Catholic Reporter (search), told FOXNews.com from Rome. "You're reading a novel. You're not reading a documentary; you're not reading history."
While it never claims to be something other than fiction, "Angels & Demons" does have "fact" and "author's note" sections — like its sequel, Brown's runaway 2003 bestseller "The Da Vinci Code" (search) — that explain which references are true.
In any case, "Angels & Demons" takes a stab at describing what happens in the secret vote for the next pope:
"Conclave … The final hurdle. It was one of the oldest traditions in Christendom," Brown writes. "Nowadays, because the outcome of conclave was usually known before it began, the process was criticized as obsolete — more of a burlesque than an election.
"The camerlengo knew, however, this was only a lack of understanding. Conclave was not an election. It was an ancient, mystic transference of power. The tradition was timeless … the secrecy, the folded slips of paper, the burning of the ballots, the mixing of ancient chemicals, the smoke signals.”
Brown has been in seclusion lately, declining all press interviews and reportedly writing his next book. But interviews published on his Web site offer some insight.
"I am constantly amazed how much 'secret' information is readily available out there if one knows where to dig," Brown says on his site. "For example, the detailed description in 'Angels & Demons' depicting the intimate ritual of Vatican conclave — the threaded necklace of ballots ... the mixing of chemicals ... the burning of the ballots — much of that was from a book published on Harvard University Press by a Jesuit scholar who had interviewed more than 100 cardinals ..."
"Angels & Demons" made few waves when it first came out, but now, partly because of the success of its follow-up, "The Da Vinci Code," it is also reportedly becoming a bestseller, with more than 8 million copies in print, according to publisher Simon & Schuster.
Simon & Schuster said last week it has seen an increase in sales with the death of Pope John Paul II.
"We attribute the increased sales to interest in the cardinals' conclave," spokesman Adam Rothberg said.
But some scholars warn against relying on Brown's thriller to figure out what will happen on Monday, since he blends historical facts, legends and fictional storylines.
"It's not so much wrong, as out of date," Burstein said. "He based it on procedures that were done for many years prior to Pope John Paul II.
"If you judge it by the norms of the traditional historical novel, he's done a lot of research and his facts are pretty good. ... When Dan Brown deals with the papal selection process in 'Angels and Demons,' he's actually quite factual, within reason."
Brown aside, we do know this much about the conclave: 115 members of the elite red-robed College of Cardinals will congregate in the Sistine Chapel Monday to cast their votes for the next pope by secret ballot.
For the first time, they won't be housed in the Apostolic Palace, but rather will sleep in a $20 million hotel residence called the Domus Sanctae Marthae, and will be able to go outside the Chapel complex, as long as they stay within Vatican City.
Thousands of reporters will be at hand, but there likely won't be much to see or hear, except for a wisp of smoke and a tolling of church bells.
"You go down to the plaza and you wait for the smoke," Roberts said. "It really is primitive. The smoke is never really black or white — it's usually gray — so this year there will be bells ringing" [when the new pope is elected].
But perhaps the best person to explain the conclave — or offer reasons not to explain the conclave — is the late pope himself.
“It has been my wish to give particular attention to the age-old institution of the Conclave, the rules and procedures of which have been established and defined," wrote Pope John Paul II on the Vatican's Web site.
"A careful historical examination confirms both the appropriateness of this institution, given the circumstances in which it originated and gradually took definitive shape, and its continued usefulness for the orderly, expeditious and proper functioning of the election itself, especially in times of tension and upheaval …
"I further confirm, by my apostolic authority, the duty of maintaining the strictest secrecy with regard to everything that directly or indirectly concerns the election process itself.”
To date, the Vatican has released no official comment on "Angels & Demons" or "The Da Vinci Code," which has more than 25 million copies in print.
But Roman Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone — a former Vatican official considered by some as a possible candidate for pope — said last month that "The Da Vinci Code" espouses heresy, calling it "a sack full of lies against the church."
The novel contends that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene were married and have descendents; Bertone urged Catholic bookstores to remove it from their shelves.
Another high-ranking Catholic, Brazilian Monsignor Jose Maria Pinheiro — nominated to be bishop of Sao Paulo by John Paul II about a month before he died — quickly softened those statements.
He encouraged readers to use caution before reading Brown's books, but said Bertone's statements weren't the official Vatican position, nor did the Catholic Church support book banning, according to media reports.
Brown himself has said that during his research for his thrillers, he was invited in to see the pope in what is known as a "semi-private audience" in a special room inside Vatican City, during which the pope spoke to Brown and a group of people and blessed them.
"Dawn came late to Rome. An early rainstorm had washed the crowds from St. Peter's Square," writes Brown at the end of "Angels & Demons," after a harrowing disaster is dealt with but before a new pope has been named.
"The media stayed on, huddling under umbrellas and in vans, commentating on the evening's events. Across the world, churches overflowed. It was a time of reflection and discussion ... in all religions."
And, when a pope in the novel is named, Brown writes: "The midmorning sky still hung heavy with clouds as the Sistine Chapel's chimney gave up its first faint puffs of white smoke."
Whether or not you believe what "Angels & Demons" has to say about the conclave, the process of picking a pope remains an enigma even to those right there in Rome — especially since the College of Cardinals decided last week to stop all media interviews.
"What you see is a whole lot of cardinals hustled by cameras saying, I don't want to talk," said the Catholic Reporter's Roberts. "We're getting little bits and snips from just a few cardinals."
The cardinals themselves are in the dark about all the details, too — though hopefully by the time they go into conclave, they'll see the light. A prominent Honduran cardinal said he's happy to be among the "papabile" — those possessing pope potential — but no one on earth knows what will happen April 18.
"Only the Holy Spirit knows who the successor is to His Holiness," said Archbishop of Tegucigalpa Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga (search).