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Pope conclave nears; Sistine Chapel chimney installed

March 9, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
Firefighters have installed a chimney on the Sistine Chapel roof that will signal to the world that the cardinals have elected a new pope.

Only a few days remain until the papal conclave begins on Tuesday, and construction workers are preparing the chapel interior.

Eyewitness News was given a rare opportunity to see where the smoke will be coming from inside the Sistine Chapel. Select members of the media were invited in to see the preparations first hand. The entry into the chapel alone is awe inspiring. Once inside, the beautiful Michelangelo frescos from 1510 jump out as if they were painted yesterday.

The chapel is filled with workers on a strict deadline to be finished in three days. Scaffolding and petitions are in place. The chairs where the cardinals will sit and make their votes are neatly arranged, and the stoves are in plain sight. One to burn the ballots, the other designed to emit smoke.

The design of the chimney is very simple: a century-old cast iron stove where ballot papers are burned, with a copper pipe out the top that snakes up the Sistine's frescoed walls, out the window and onto the chapel roof.

After years of confusion about whether the smoke was black (no pope) or white (pope), the Vatican in 2005 installed an auxiliary stove where fumigating cases are lit. The smoke from those cases - black or white - joins the burned ballot smoke out the chimney.

With the conclave date set, the pace of events is picking up at the Vatican. While the Sistine Chapel is closed, people are still waiting in long lines to get in to St. Peter's Basilica. There's definitely something in the air throughout Rome.

"You walk by the newsstands, and people are just standing and talking about it," said Catherine Shyu of San Francisco. "You can feel this buzz and this excitement in the air as all of these people are waiting to find out what's next."

As for the 115 cardinals gathered in the Vatican, their average age is between 71 and 72 years old. Not surprisingly, the country most represented is Italy with 28. The United States is in second place with 11.

While there is no clear frontrunner for pope, there is a feeling that the cardinals will go into the conclave with a good idea of their top picks. The cardinals have been meeting all week and many say without these discussions, the conclave could drag on.

Once locked inside the Sistine Chapel, Vatican officials say politics will be locked out.

"It's a time of quiet and a lot of time of reflection and their own prayer on their own. So they're not politicking and they're not chatting as this is going on. They're watching the ceremony of each of them walking up to give their ballot," said Monsignor Kevin Irwin of the Catholic University of America.

The cardinals will take a vote on Tuesday, followed by several more possible votes on the following days. If they don't have a pope by Friday, they will take Saturday off for prayer and reflection and begin the whole process again Sunday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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