Announcing the creation of new cardinals Sunday his voice was weak and he had to stop several times to regain his breath. On Monday, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger made a pessimistic remark about the pope's condition to a German magazine -- which the Vatican later played down.
But whenever it happens, the pope's death will set in motion a chain of Vatican rituals and procedures that -- with few variations and amendments -- have been in place for centuries.
As soon as the pope dies, the Chamberlain of the Holy Roman Church -- a senior Vatican cardinal -- takes over. Usually referred to by the Italian title of 'Camerlengo' (chamberlain), he is the official who must ascertain that the pope is dead.
As recently as 40 years ago, the Camerlengo did this by tapping the pope's head three times with a small hammer and shouting his family name close to his ear, but that colorful ritual is not mentioned in the 1996 revisions made by Pope John Paul II to streamline the process, and referred to by the opening Latin words of the document as "Universi Domini Gregis..." -- The shepherd of the Lord's whole flock...
However, the Camerlengo is still required to slip the papal ring off the dead pope's finger, and smash the official papal seal.
The Camerlengo -- currently the Spanish-born Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo -- will hold daily meetings of all the cardinals present, and the number gets bigger as more cardinals arrive in Rome.
The cardinals' council will declare nine days of official mourning, and set a date for the funeral, usually five or six days after the pope's death. This allows for the preparation of a grave in the crypt of St. Peter's Basilica, and for about three days of lying-in-state in the basilica.
The cardinals will also set a date for the start of the conclave, which will get going about three weeks following the pope's death. For the cardinals this pre-conclave period is a time of politicking, lobbying and consultations. The selection of a new pope is as political as any Chicago ward election.
Planning the conclave is the main function of the cardinals at this point. All heads of departments (including the secretary of state and the heads of the congregations) cease to exercise their office, and everything that is not an emergency is put on hold awaiting the election of a new pope.
There's a bit of a cliffhanger here. If the pope dies before Oct. 16, the number of cardinal-electors (cardinals who have not reached the age of 80) will number 109. That is the date when the pope is scheduled to hold his consistory, the solemn papal ceremony in St. Peter's that actually creates the new cardinals he named last week. Twenty-six of the newcomers are of voting age, but until they receive their red hats they are only nominees -- and will be left out in the cold.
Another change introduced by Pope John Paul II is to relax the traditional rules of confinement in the conclave. The term comes from the Latin "cum clave," meaning "with a key."
Until John Paul's own election 25 years ago this month, the cardinals were sealed into a cramped space in the Vatican Palace, with a hole in the wall through which food and other supplies were passed to them.
Starting with this papal election the cardinals will be lodged in a more spacious new building inside the Vatican's walls called the Domus Sanctae Marthae (St. Martha's House) and bussed the short distance to the Sistine Chapel to vote. But each cardinal still takes a vote of secrecy, and they will still remain incommunicado until one of them is elected pope. No contact with the outside world is allowed, so there will be no cell phones or laptops inside -- and the Sistine chapel is "swept" electronically to prevent bugging.
The pope is elected by secret ballot. Voting takes place twice daily, in the morning and the afternoon, until one of the cardinals receives a two-thirds majority of the votes of those present. Vatican sources say there's talk of abolishing the time-honored but confusing smoke signals from the chapel chimney to announce the outcome of the ballot -- black smoke for an inconclusive vote, and white smoke to proclaim the election of a new pope.
This would mean that the world will have to wait for the announcement from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, once a pope is elected.
A couple of weeks after his first appearance the new pope is formally enthroned in St. Peter's Square if the weather is clement, and if not, in the basilica. Popes used to be carried in to their coronation high above the heads of the crowd on a throne, known as the sedia gestatoria. But the sedia gestatoria -- which made Pope John XXIII feel seasick -- was abolished by his successor, Paul VI.