Vatican work prepares for conclave

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VATICAN CITY -- Vatican preparations for the vote plowed ahead Saturday, with firefighters installing the Sistine Chapel chimney that will signal to the world when a decision has been reached.

But the specter of an inconclusive first few rounds of secret balloting remained high, with no apparent front-runner heading into Tuesday's papal election and a long list of cardinals still angling to discuss the church's problems before the vote.

"You don't have your mind absolutely made up" going into the conclave, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, 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 lasted 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.

The Vatican continued Saturday with preparations: Inside the frescoed Sistine Chapel, workmen stapled 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 thwart cellphones and eavesdropping devices.

The interference was working: cellphones had no reception in the chapel. Reporters allowed to visit used their phones instead to take photos in front of Michelangelo's "Last Judgment," the huge fresco behind the altar depicting a muscular Jesus surrounded by naked figures ascending to heaven and falling to hell.

Elsewhere in the Apostolic Palace, officials Saturday took measures to definitively end Benedict XVI's pontificate, destroying his fisherman's ring and the personal seals and stamps he used for official papers.

The act -- coupled with Benedict's public resignation and pledge of obedience to the future pope -- is designed to signal the end of his papacy so there is no doubt that a new pope is in charge.

The developments all point toward the momentous event soon to confront the Catholic Church: Tuesday's start of the conclave to elect a new leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, who must try to solve the numerous problems facing the church.

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For the sixth day, cardinals met behind closed doors Saturday and once again discussed the work of the Holy See's offices "and how to improve it," according to Lombardi.

The Holy See's internal governance has been a constant theme in these days of discussion, an indication that the revelations of corruption, political infighting and turf battles exposed by the leaks of papal documents last year are casting a very big shadow over this conclave.

The attention the issue has received suggests the cardinals will want a good manager in a pope -- or at least a pope who would appoint a good manager as his secretary of state, the key administration job in the Vatican.

Another round of secret consultations is scheduled for Monday, the last day before the conclave.

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