VATICAN CITY -- It begins with prayers chanted in an ancient language and ends with a tiny figure on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica unveiled as the supreme pontiff of more than a billion Catholics. The conclave to elect a pope, which starts Tuesday, unfolds with elaborate ritual, deep secrecy and politicking that would warm the heart of a machine politician.
While carried out in the trappings of past centuries, "In reality, the elections are a political fact," said Paolo Francia, author of "The Conclave."
The voting is minutely scripted. Rectangular paper ballots are counted, collected, pierced with a needle and burned. Exactly four rounds of voting are permitted each day. The winner's name is intoned in Latin.
It is a process dating back centuries, with a rich history of chicanery -- like the bought election of Julius II in 1503 and the undermining of a leading contender, Cardinal Giuseppe Siri, in 1978, thanks to the leaking of an embargoed interview he gave.
There are no formal nominees, and technically, each cardinal enters the conclave as a possible pope. The winner must garner two-thirds of the votes, or 77 of 115 in this case. In practice, a few names always emerge beforehand as favorites, although the principal truism is, "Go in a pope, come out a cardinal."
The first ballot, expected late Tuesday afternoon, serves effectively as a primary. It identifies the cardinals to whom votes can flow in succeeding rounds -- two every morning, two every afternoon.
"I expect the first vote is going to be quite scattered around," said Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier of South Africa, given "the wider field of candidates with the potential" to become pope.
While the Holy Spirit is supposed to be the guiding light behind a pope's selection, the cardinals are known to negotiate between the ritualistic voting rounds over dinner and coffee, although the constitution governing papal transitions forbids them from making deals.
The conclave that elected Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2005 as Benedict XVI lends some insight into how the voting progresses.
In 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger jumped out to a quick lead with 47 votes, according to the diary of an unnamed cardinal, as reported by an Italian state television journalist, Lucio Brunelli, in the journal Limes later that year. While never verified, the outline of Mr. Brunelli's version was reflected in other accounts.
The diarist said Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, received 10 votes; Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the archbishop of Milan who was considered a less conservative choice, received 9; and four others held several votes. Many Vatican experts said that Cardinal Martini was not necessarily considered a real option, but a gathering point for anti-Ratzinger votes.
"We spoke at the table, exchanging impressions on the first vote that came to nothing," Mr. Brunelli quoted the unnamed cardinal as writing. "More discussions, with maximum discretion, happened after dinner in the rooms. Small groups, two or three people."
In the second round, Cardinal Ratzinger's count rose to 65 and Cardinal Bergoglio's to 35, the diarist said, according to Mr. Brunelli. Cardinal Ratzinger appeared to have picked up the 6 votes of Cardinal Camillo Ruini and 12 scattered votes. Cardinal Martini's votes apparently went to Cardinal Bergoglio.
Round 3: Cardinal Ratzinger, 72; Cardinal Bergoglio, 40. At this point, Cardinal Bergoglio needed only four votes to exceed one-third of the total, enough to block a Ratzinger papacy.
"Great worry among the prelates who hope for the election of Cardinal Ratzinger; contacts grow thicker," Mr. Brunelli reported the diarist as writing.
But on the fourth round, at least 12 went to Cardinal Ratzinger, giving him 84 and the papacy.
In an effort to limit the release of such inside information, the extras to the drama are sworn to secrecy, on pain of excommunication. The secretary of the College of Cardinals, priests for cardinal confessions, doctors, nurses, elevator operators, security officers, cleaning and meal crews and minibus drivers who all serve the cardinals -- all took the oath on Monday in the Pauline Chapel in the Apostolic Palace. They numbered about 90.
Early Tuesday morning, the cardinals move into the unadorned rooms -- chosen by lot -- of the Santa Marta residence where they will stay for the duration. The residence was first used for a conclave in 2005, replacing makeshift accommodations in the Apostolic Palace, where bathrooms were often far from sleeping quarters.
Smoking, in a nod to modern times, is banned at Santa Marta. Cardinal José da Cruz Policarpo of Portugal wandered outside for cigars in 2005, according to the cardinal diarist.
At 10 a.m. Tuesday, they celebrate a Mass dedicated to the election of a pope. At 4:30, the cardinals, chanting in Latin, walk from the Pauline Chapel into the Sistine Chapel, which has been prepared for the occasion. Vatican carpenters installed a wooden floor, covered by tan cloth, over the pavement to even out the different levels.
They built two rows of tables, covered by crimson cloth, along each of the two long walls of the chapel. Another table stands in front of the altar for the three "scrutinizer" cardinals chosen by lot to examine the ballots. Three cardinals are also chosen by lot to verify the results, and three are selected to carry ballots back and forth to any cardinals too ill to come to the chapel.
Jamming devices prevent cellphone service, part of the complete deprivation of contact with the outside world, a vestige of the need to protect conclaves from the influence of outside forces, like an emperor or king. Technicians have swept the chapel for bugs or video devices.
Fear of royal interference is no longer an issue, said Agostino Paravicini Bagliani, a historian of the papacy, "but you still have pressure of public opinion and of the press."
On Tuesday, when they arrive in the chapel, the cardinals swear an oath to follow the constitution on papal elections and to keep secrecy.
Then, the master of papal liturgical celebrations gives the order "Extra omnes" -- "Everyone out" -- and almost all but the cardinals leave. The master of celebrations waits while a prelate delivers a meditation, and then the two leave the cardinals to their deliberations.
The cardinals have in front of them a list of their names and several ballots, rectangular pieces of paper with the words "Eligo in Summum Pontificem" -- "I elect as supreme pontiff." Each cardinal must write the name of his candidate in clear but disguised handwriting. Cardinal Napier said he did not bother to alter his penmanship the last time. No one knows his handwriting anyway, he said.
The voter folds the ballot in half, walks to the front of the chapel, holds it up in the air, places it in a saucer and then tips it into a flying saucer-shaped urn. He says the words, "I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected." Above him, in all its glory, is Michelangelo's "Last Judgment."
"That's one of the most solemn motives," Cardinal Napier said of the oath. "It makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up."
At the end of a round, a scrutinizer shakes the urn. Each ballot is pulled out, marked by the first scrutinizer, passed to the next for examination and then read out by the third.
The scrutinizers then pierce each ballot with a needle and thread through the word "eligo," stringing them together to prevent any improprieties.
After each pair of rounds, the ballots and any notes are stuffed into a cylindrical cast-iron stove that has been installed by the main entrance of the chapel. Another stove next to it will receive chemicals to turn the smoke white, if a pope is elected, or black, if not.
Immediately after the pope is elected, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, the senior cardinal at the conclave, approaches the winner and says the words: "Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?" If the answer is yes, he will ask what name the new pope wants to adopt.
After prayers and a reading of the Gospel, the cardinals individually approach their new pontiff and "make an act of homage and obedience," according to the constitution. The new pope heads to the balcony of St. Peter's, stopping in the Pauline Chapel by himself for a prayer.
"Obviously this part is not televised," the Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said on Monday.
The crowd in St. Peter's Square will then hear the proclamation "habemus papam" -- "We have a pope," and the new man will appear, giving his first blessing as pope.
Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.