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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cardinals Assemble to Vote for Pope

VATICAN CITY -- In a historic gathering steeped in intrigue, cardinals from six continents assembled Monday for their first conclave of the new millennium to elect a pope who will inherit John Paul II's mantle and guide the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics into a new era.

Representing 52 countries, the 115 crimson-robed "princes" of a church stung by priest sex-abuse scandals and an exodus of the faithful celebrated a midmorning Mass at St. Peter's Basilica before sequestering themselves in the Sistine Chapel at 4:30 p.m. local time. There, seated atop a false floor hiding electronic jamming devices designed to thwart eavesdroppers, they were to take an oath of secrecy, hear a meditation from a senior cardinal and decide whether to take a first vote or wait until Tuesday.

In his homily, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- a powerful Vatican official from Germany whose name generated the most buzz in speculation about leading papal candidates -- drew applause from fellow cardinals as he asked God to give the church a "a pastor according to his own heart, a pastor who guides us to knowledge in Christ, to his love and to true joy."

But in unusually blunt terms, he made clear what type of pastor that should be: one who should not allow "a dictatorship of relativism" -- the ideology that there are no absolute truths -- to take deeper root.

"Having a clear faith, based on the creed of the church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism," Ratzinger said. "Whereas relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and 'swept along by every wind of teaching,' looks like the only attitude acceptable to today's standards. We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires."

Thousands of pilgrims and tourists converged on St. Peter's Square to watch the chapel chimney for the white smoke that ultimately will tell the world that the church's 265th pontiff has been elected. The famous stove in the chapel also will bellow black smoke to signal any inconclusive session of voting.

The cardinals spent their first night in the super-secure Domus Sanctae Marthae, a hotel that John Paul had constructed inside Vatican City so they could rest in comfort between voting sessions. Swiss Guards saluted the prelates as they were whisked to the residence in limousines Sunday.

The daily La Stampa said cardinals gearing up for a stressful stretch of days had packed CD players and headphones in their bags along with prayer books and snacks to nibble on in their rooms.

Conspicuously missing from their quarters were cell phones, newspapers, radios, televisions and Internet connections -- all banned in new rules laid down by John Paul to minimize the chance of leaks to the outside world. Cooks, maids and drivers were sworn to secrecy, with excommunication the punishment for any indiscretion.