VATICAN CITY — The Vatican sought Saturday to quash speculation that divisions among cardinals could drag out the conclave to elect the new pope, while preparations for the vote plowed ahead with firefighters installing the Sistine Chapel chimney that will tell the world when a decision has been reached.
But the specter of an inconclusive first few rounds of secret balloting remained high, with no clear front-runner heading into Tuesday's papal election and a long list of cardinals still angling to discuss the church's problems ahead of the vote.
"You don't have your mind absolutely made up" going into the conclave, U.S. Cardinal Justin Rigali, who participated in the 2005 conclave that elected Benedict XVI, told The Associated Press this 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 dragged on for more than five days.
"I think it's a process that can be carried out in a few days without much difficulty," spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi told reporters.
While Tuesday's initial voting will likely see a broad number of candidates nominated, subsequent rounds will quickly whittle down the field to those candidates who are likely to obtain the two-thirds, or 77 votes necessary for victory, he said.
"This process of identifying the candidates who can receive the consensus and on whom cardinals can converge is a process that can move with notable speed," Lombardi said.
The Vatican was certainly going full-throttle Saturday with preparations: Inside the frescoed Sistine Chapel, workmen staple-gunned the 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 prevent cellphone or eavesdropping devices from working.
The interference was working: cell phones had no reception in the chapel. Reporters allowed to visit the chapel used their phones instead to pose for photos in front of Michelangelo's "Last Judgment," the huge fresco behind the altar depicting a muscular Jesus surrounded by naked masses ascending to heaven and falling to hell.
Off in the rear left-hand corner sat the stove, a century-old cast iron oven where the voting ballot papers are burned, sending up puffs of smoke to tell the world if a pope has been elected (white smoke) or not (black).
After years of confusion, the Vatican in 2005 installed an auxiliary stove where fumigating cases are lit. The smoke from those cases joins the burned ballot smoke in a single copper pipe that snakes up the Sistine's frescoed walls, out the window and up on the roof where firemen on Saturday fitted the chimney top.
Elsewhere in the Apostolic Palace, officials on 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. These steps were made necessary given Benedict's decision to resign rather than stay on the job until death.
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.
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.
Lombardi, meanwhile, confirmed that the bells of St. Peter's Basilica would ring once a pope has been elected, though he acknowledged that there will always be some uncertainty in the whole endeavor. In 2005, it wasn't clear if the smoke coming out of the chimney was black or white and whether or not the bells were ringing for a pope or simply because the clock had struck noon.
"This is the beauty of these events, that is to say, having a minimum of suspense," Lombardi said. "A few minutes (of uncertainty) are more interesting than if everything happened like a Swiss watch."
AP Religion reporter Rachel Zoll contributed. Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield