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John Paul II's reign officially ends as Vatican prepares for conclave

VATICAN CITY—The Roman Catholic Church on Saturday signaled its readiness to select a new pope, officially closing out Pope John Paul II's reign and unveiling a Sistine Chapel equipped with a false floor to hide anti-eavesdropping equipment.

The Vatican said Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo, the papal chamberlain, destroyed John Paul II's Fisherman's Ring and lead seal, officially ending John Paul's pontificate, during a meeting of 143 cardinals to discuss problems facing the church.

Then, the 115 cardinals under the age of 80 eligible to vote for the next pope were told to begin moving Sunday afternoon into the Domus Sanctae Marthae, or St. Martha House, behind St. Peter's Basilica, where each will have a two-room suite to himself during the upcoming conclave, which begins Monday. They will dine together Sunday evening.

Twelve tables lined with chairs to accommodate the cardinals have been moved into the Sistine Chapel, where the cardinals will deliberate. A large Bible held a central place of honor and a tubular, cast-iron furnace inscribed with the dates of the last five papal conclaves sat prepared to signal to the world "Habemus papam"—Latin for "We have a pope."

The Vatican said that, for the first time, a backup furnace was installed next to the old conclave furnace. The new furnace works electronically, with the aid of a large red on/off button and canisters of chemicals to enhance the quality of the smoke that will spout from the Sistine rooftop when the cardinals make known the outcome of their votes.

The smoke will be black if no pope has been elected and white to herald a new leader of the world's 1 billion Catholics. To remove all doubt, the bells of St. Peter's Basilica also will be rung if a pope has been elected.

The Vatican allowed groups of journalists, some chosen by lottery, to briefly view the Sistine Chapel as thousands of pilgrims attended the last of nine mourning Masses, known as Novemdiales services, in St. Peter's to mark the passing of John Paul II.

In the Sistine Chapel, infused with the vibrantly restored colors of Michelangelo's 16th-century masterworks, workers have built a platform elevating the conclave's deliberations about 2 feet off the floor. Equipment to thwart listening devices and cell phone signals was placed under the floor—though there were reports that some journalists' cell phones had picked up signals during the tour.

Six tables, with maroon skirting and camel-colored cloths on top line each side of the chapel. Simple wooden chairs are aligned facing a center aisle and a table holding the Bible. When the conclave begins, the Bible's pages will be turned to the passage that reads, "Upon this rock, I will build my church." (Matthew 16:18)

At one end of the room, in front of the altar below Michelangelo's fresco of "The Last Judgment," was a shorter table with two chairs facing the cardinals. Those will be for Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, dean of the College of Cardinals, and Somalo, the papal chamberlain, who is in charge of the Vatican until a new pope is named.

On the other side of the table were three chairs for the cardinal "scrutineers," who will be chosen each day to assist in counting the ballots.

The two gunmetal-gray furnaces stand side by side at the opposite end of the chapel from where the cardinals will sit. Rising above them is shiny copper tubing about the diameter of a dinner plate, snaking the height of the chapel.

This conclave will be the first to be held in the Sistine Chapel since Michelangelo's heralded frescoes were cleaned and restored in the 1990s.

The masterpieces "are reminders of the currents of reality that come together every day in our existence," reflected the Rev. Bernie O'Connor, who took a Vatican post last year in the Congregation for Eastern Churches. He previously taught for 10 years at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Mich., as a scholar on international relations and as an assistant dean.

The Sistine ceiling, which Michelangelo completed in 1512, most famously depicts the Book of Genesis and the "Creation of Adam," in which God's touch gives life to humankind.

The purity and possibility of life depicted in the ceiling contrasts with "The Last Judgment" on the altar wall. Michelangelo completed it in 1541, after a period of war and instability racked Rome and the Vatican. At its center is Christ, who determines the destiny of the painting's populace, either to heaven or hell.

The chapel's artwork, O'Connor said, is "not all optimism, and not all pessimism—it's a reflection of the human condition."

A room to the left off the altar also reflects the burden of the papacy.

"It's where the new pope will get dressed in his new robes," explained the Rev. Richard Mackowski, a Detroit-born Jesuit and biblical scholar who has lived and taught in Rome for more than 40 years. The robes already have been prepared in three sizes.

"It's called the Room of Tears, because the new pope will also become the prisoner of the Vatican," he said.

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CONCLAVE SCHEDULE

The conclave to pick a new pope will begin at 10 a.m. Monday, (4 a.m. Eastern time) with a Mass. At 4:30 p.m. (10:30 a.m. Eastern), the cardinals will file into the Sistine Chapel. The procession will be televised live.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said cardinals will decide Monday whether to take a first vote Monday or wait until Tuesday.

Each day during the conclave, the cardinals will celebrate mass at 7:30 a.m. (1:30 a.m. Eastern) in the chapel of the residence and enter the Sistine Chapel by 9 a.m. (3 a.m. Eastern). They will vote twice in the morning and return at 4 p.m. (10 a.m. Eastern) for two more ballots.

As long as balloting continues, smoke from the burned ballots would most likely be visible around noon (6 a.m. Eastern) and 7 p.m. (1 p.m. Eastern).

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(Montemurri reports for the Detroit Free Press)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): POPE

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