Church Concludes Mourning Period

The Roman Catholic Church (search) was completing its official nine-day mourning period for Pope John Paul II (search) on Saturday while its cardinals made final preparations to select his successor.

The 115 cardinals charged with electing a new pope — and some other cardinals too old to vote — held their final meeting Saturday before they sequester themselves amid Michelangelo's stunning frescoes in the Sistine Chapel (search) on Monday.

On Saturday afternoon, Chilean Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez was to say Mass at St. Peter's Basilica, ending a nine-day official mourning period that began with John Paul's funeral.

The late pope, who died April 2, was buried a week later in the grottoes below the basilica.

The Vatican (search) gave no immediate word on the subject of the cardinals' meeting Saturday, but they have been discussing problems in the church, including financial losses, and seeing to the administration of the Vatican.

On Monday, they will begin balloting to choose a new pontiff in a tradition steeped in secrecy.

Housekeepers, car drivers and others who will have access to the cardinals during the conclave took an oath on Friday, promising never to reveal the details of the politicking and infighting behind the process unless the pontiff himself authorizes it.

With one hand on the book of the Gospels (search), each of the officials and aides also swore to refrain from using any audio or video equipment during the closed-door vote, at the risk of the severest of punishments the church can mete out: excommunication.

"I will observe absolute and perpetual secrecy with all who are not part of the College of Cardinal electors concerning all matters directly or indirectly related to the ballots cast and their scrutiny for the election of the Supreme Pontiff," they intoned.

Secrecy has long been a hallmark of conclaves, but the threat of leaks and spying seemed greater than ever in an age of high-tech listening devices, some 6,000 accredited journalists prowling Vatican City and seemingly intractable global interest in the decisions of 115 red-hatted "princes of the church."

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.

Already, though, leaks from the secret pre-conclave meetings were abundant in the Italian media, with newspapers reporting on the daily jockeying of factions pushing their candidates. Early in the week Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany was seen as a front-runner with nearly half of the votes. By Friday, Cardinal Angelo Sodano and Chilean Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz Ossa were gaining some momentum, according to the newspaper accounts.

The Rev. Andrew Greeley, a prominent Catholic author, said such leaks were common in the run-up to the conclave — though they are expected to stop once the master of liturgical ceremonies cries "Extra omnes," Latin for "all out," and only the cardinals are left in the Sistine Chapel to vote.

"It is like the previous conclaves, about this time before they go into the conclave, the Italians begin to leak things to the Italian media and you get all kinds of wild predictions," he said.

John Paul outlined the secrecy procedures in his 1996 document "Universi Dominici Gregis," or "Shepherd of the Lord's Whole Flock." In it, he allowed for a few people to have contact with the cardinals: prelates involved in ceremonial functions, maids and food servers at the Vatican hotel where the cardinals will stay, drivers who will ferry them to the Sistine Chapel and back each day, elevator operators who will bring them to the chapel itself, doctors and nurses on call for sick cardinals and priests who will hear confessions.

John Paul also singled out the need for two "trustworthy technicians" who will sweep the Sistine Chapel for bugs and other listening devices.

The Vatican didn't say how many people took the oath, but official photographs of the event showed a few dozen people, including nuns, prelates and lay people, waiting to take their turn.