ROME -- Although the conclave to select the next pope begins today, no one is expecting drama on the first day.
For starters, there's only one voting session, set for around 5 p.m. local time. That's compared to four ballots per day come Wednesday.
"You can expect black smoke," said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, drawing his confidence from a long history of day-one duds. "The first conclave vote rarely has a positive result."
But what to the outside world may look like a wasted day is actually to the 115 voting cardinals a critical steppingstone toward selecting a leader for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
"This first day is important because it establishes the spiritual aspects of the conclave," says Matthew Bunson, a religious scholar and author of We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI. "That happens through the procession into the Sistine Chapel and the constant prayers asking for the guidance of the Holy Spirit."
But perhaps more significantly, it clues cardinals in to who's trending.
"They learn from that first vote who the leading contenders are and what level of backing they have," says Bunson, noting that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's strong support at the outset of 2005's conclave led to him becoming Pope Benedict in just four ballots.
"If someone gets lots of votes on the first ballot, the momentum could take hold and this could be over quickly," says Thomas Reese, analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, adding that the winner will need two-thirds -- or 77 -- of the 115 votes. "On the other hand, if someone gets to 60 fast, but then stalls, that could require a lot of negotiations to see who's going to compromise on their candidate."
Reese says what partly paved the way for John Paul II's revolutionary election as a Polish pope was that votes were split between the two leading Italian cardinals, resulting in a winning third path. Although presently Milanese Cardinal Angelo Scola is often mentioned as among the leading "papabili," U.S. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York also received his share of press of late.
But whenever the new pope is elected, spokesman Lombardi warned that it may take a while before the throngs of faithful and tourists waiting in St. Peter's Square see the new pontiff. That's because the next man to sit on the throne of St. Peter plans to stop in the Pauline Chapel to pray before alighting on the balcony to face the masses.
"It could take longer than last time," when it was almost an hour before Pope Benedict appeared, Lombardi said. "Especially if the new pope immerses himself in prayer."
Monday morning workers readied that famous balcony for its big moment, putting up massive red velvet curtains with a crane while bystanders snapped photos.
Meanwhile, deep inside the labyrinthine recesses of the powerful but troubled city-state, the nearly 100 people who will assist in the conclave "from priests to drivers" swore an oath of secrecy.
That vow echoes the elaborate technological measures being taken to prevent digital information from entering or leaving the Sistine Chapel, perhaps the world's most historic and valuable polling station.
Those include the installation of cell jamming devices and even raising the floor of the 15th-century building.
Tuesday, the cardinals will enter the chapel and take their own oaths by placing their hands on a book containing selections from the gospels, and then with the traditional cry "Extra Omnes" "Everyone out" the conclave will officially begin.
The cardinals are expected to vote in prayerful silence. Although many use social media to connect with the faithful, everything about this historic exercise is old school. Each will receive a card with the heading "Eligo In Summum Pontifem," meaning simply "I Elect as Pope." Beneath, they hand-write their choice.
What politicking does occur between balloting sessions will be contained to walks, dinners and late-night chats at the Casa Santa Marta, a five-story building inside the Vatican's imposing walls that houses all of the red-robed electorate. But when there finally is a majority vote, the world will know thanks to smoke signals.
Out of the thinnest of capped chimneys, mounted specifically for the conclave, black or white smoke will pour. Two stoves actually were installed in the Sistine Chapel for the conclave. One is for burning the ballots "previously, wet straw was added to create a blacker smoke, but the method was found lacking " and the other is for burning a special mix of chemicals that should definitively create the right color.
One can only hope. In 2005, Benedict's winning ballot took far longer to convey than anticipated. To begin with, the white smoke looked gray. And the Vatican bells that traditionally ring in the election of a new pope stayed silent because the bell-ringer was waiting for clearance from a high-ranking official. Let the drama begin.
Marco della Cava, USA TODAY