VATICAN CITY — Cardinals from around the globe locked themselves inside the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday to choose a new leader for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics and their church, surrounded by Michelangelo's imposing frescos imagining the beginning and the end of the world.
The 115 scarlet-robed men entered their conclave with a final appeal for unity to heal the divisions that have been exposed by Pope Benedict XVI's shocking resignation and revelations of corruption in the Vatican bureaucracy.
Led by prelates holding a crucifix and candles, the cardinals chanted the Litany of Saints, the hypnotic Gregorian chant imploring the intercession of the saints, as they filed into the chapel and took their oath of secrecy.
With a dramatic closing of the thick double doors and the exhortation "Extra omnes" or "all out," the ritual-filled conclave began beneath Michelangelo's frescoed "Creation" and before his "Last Judgment" — potent images for the task at hand.
Benedict XVI's resignation has thrown the church into turmoil and exposed deep divisions among cardinals grappling with the apparently conflicting needs for a manager to clean up the Vatican's dysfunctional bureaucracy and a pastor who can inspire Catholics at a time of waning faith and growing secularism.