VATICAN CITY — The Vatican sought Saturday to quash speculation that divisions among cardinals could drag out the conclave to elect the new pope, while preparations for the vote plowed ahead with firefighters installing the Sistine Chapel chimney that will tell the world when a decision has been reached.
But the specter of an inconclusive first few rounds of secret balloting remained high, with no clear front-runner heading into Tuesday's papal election and a long list of cardinals still angling to discuss the church's problems ahead of the vote.
"You don't have your mind absolutely made up" going into the conclave, U.S. Cardinal Justin Rigali, who participated in the 2005 conclave that elected Benedict XVI, told the Associated Press last week. "You have your impressions."
The Vatican spokesman, however, took pains to stress the "vast," near-unanimous decision by the 115 cardinal electors to set Tuesday as the conclave start date and noted that no conclave over the past century has dragged on for more than five days.
"I think it's a process that can be carried out in a few days without much difficulty," the Rev. Federico Lombardi told reporters.
While Tuesday's initial voting will likely see a broad number of candidates nominated, subsequent rounds will quickly whittle down the field to those candidates who are likely to obtain the two-thirds, or 77 votes necessary for victory, he said.
"This process of identifying the candidates who can receive the consensus and on whom cardinals can converge is a process that can move with notable speed," Lombardi said.
The Vatican was certainly going full-throttle Saturday with preparations: Inside the frescoed Sistine Chapel, workmen staple-gunned the brown felt carpeting to the false floor that has been constructed to even out the stairs and cover the jamming equipment that has been installed to prevent cellphone or eavesdropping devices from working.
The interference was working: cellphones had no reception in the chapel. Reporters allowed to visit the chapel used their phones instead to pose for photos in front of Michelangelo's Last Judgment, the huge fresco behind the altar depicting a muscular Jesus surrounded by naked masses ascending to heaven and falling to hell.
Off in the rear left-hand corner sat the stove, a century-old cast iron oven where the voting ballot papers are burned, sending up puffs of smoke to tell the world if a pope has been elected (white smoke) or not (black).