| Two men look at a sign that reads 'Sistine Chapel closed' at the Vatican City on Sunday. (AFP)
Vatican City, April 17 (Reuters): Roman Catholic cardinals moved into sequestered lodgings today ahead of a conclave to elect a successor to Pope John Paul II, with no clear favourite in sight to take charge of the 1.1 billion-member Church.
The 115 cardinals eligible to vote are all staying in a specially-built residence within the Vatican, and were dining together tonight before entering their secretive conclave in the Sistine Chapel tomorrow afternoon.
Before being shut off from the outside world, some of the red-hatted 'princes of the church' held public masses around a rainswept Rome today in which they sought to emphasise the spiritual nature of their quest.
'People think that we are going to vote like in an election. But this is something completely different. We are going to listen to the Lord and listen to the Holy Spirit,' Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras said in a homily.
None of the cardinals would be drawn on possible contenders. 'I believe the Holy Spirit already knows, but he hasn't told us yet,' said Mexican cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera.
In the run-up to the vote, much media speculation has centred on John Paul's closest aide and arch-ideologue Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, suggesting that the German prelate might head initial balloting. Ratzinger, 78, also tops betting websites.
Ratzinger led the funeral mass for John Paul on April 8, but many Vatican watchers doubt whether a man whose conservative dogma has polarised the Roman Catholic world could gain the two-thirds majority needed to become Pope himself.
That could leave the field open to a compromise candidate who could bridge the numerous factions that have risen up within the largest religious organisation in the world during John Paul's high-profile 26-year pontificate.
The cardinals can decide not to vote at their opening session tomorrow to give themselves more time for reflection. Thereafter they will hold up to four ballots a day until they elect the 264th successor to the first Pope, St. Peter.
Of the eight 20th century conclaves, none took longer than five days, and two were completed on the second day. It took just eight ballots over three days to choose the relatively unknown Karol Wojtyla of Poland as Pope John Paul in 1978.
The cardinals are due to hold a public mass tomorrow morning in St. Peter's Basilica. At 1430 GMT they will file into the Sistine Chapel to start their deliberations.
In the build-up to the vote, some 15 cardinals have been promoted in the press as potential Popes, including Italians Dionigi Tettamanzi and Angelo Scola, Brazil's Claudio Hummes, Nigeria's Francis Arinze and the Honduran Maradiaga. Before Wojtyla's election Italy had held the papacy for 455 years. Many Italians hope they will now reclaim it and fear that if they fail, they may have lost their privileged position for good as the Church becomes increasingly international.
Among the major issues facing the cardinals are the growing spiritual poverty of Europe, the material poverty of the third world and devolution of power within the Church.