The influence of John Paul II will be present in more ways than one at the conclave that opens in the Sistine Chapel on 18 April. Firstly, almost all the cardinals present were appointed by him. Secondly, John Paul II revised all rules that govern the conclave in 1996 in the document Universi Dominci Gregis. Thirdly, thanks to John Paul II, instead of being lodged in the traditional, uncomfortable accommodation close to the Sistine Chapel, the cardinals will live in the modern purpose-built quarters of S. Marta on the other side of St Peters Square.

However, there are two other important factors to take into consideration: there will be more cardinals from Europe (58) than from the rest of the world (57), owing to the illness of Cardinal Sin from the Philippines and Cardinal Suarez Rivera from Mexico, and there will be more cardinals from Italy than from any other country.

What is the procedure for voting?

All cardinals under 80 the day before the death of John Paul II take part in the conclave. They must be present in Rome and can only be excused for health reasons. Of the 117 eligible cardinals only 115 will be taking part; two are too ill to attend.

The cardinals can in theory elect any Roman Catholic male as the new pope; if he is not already a bishop, then he must be consecrated before he is officially presented to the waiting world.

All the elector cardinals are sworn to secrecy about everything that happens during the conclave and they may not talk to anyone who is not involved in the electoral process until after the election. They are not allowed to read newspapers, to listen to the radio or to watch television. Although it is not expressly mentioned in the rules laid down by John Paul II in 1996 it can be assumed that they are not be allowed to connect to internet either.

However, contrary to common belief, an official record of each of the conclaves voting sessions is kept and is presented to the new pope. It is then up to him whether or not he reveals this information or keeps it secret forever.

The cardinals will vote once on 18 April, after Mass in St Peters basilica, and then as from 19 April twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon for three days until they obtain a two-thirds majority of those present plus one; in this case 77 votes.

If this number is not obtained by the end of the third day (21 April), voting stops for a day of prayer and reflection. It then continues for another 21 ballots, with a days pause between every seven voting sessions.

In theory the voting could go on until 30 April in an attempt to find a two-thirds majority. After that the cardinals can decide on one of three options: to continue until they reach the two-thirds majority, to vote by simple majority, or to vote for the two candidates who obtained the highest number of votes in the previous voting session.

The ballot papers are burnt in a special stove at the end of each morning and afternoon voting sessions, along with the notes the cardinals make during the balloting.

If the cardinals have not elected the new pope the papers are treated so that the smoke emerging from the chimney, visible in St Peters Square, is black. If the pontiff has been elected the smoke is white. The big bell of St Peters, the one that tolled the death of John Paul II on 2 April, will then ring out again, this time to mark the election of the new pontiff.

The new pope

The man who is elected conclave must first accept to serve as pope. He must then choose his papal name. After this he is robed in white (the special pontifical tailor Gammarelli has already prepared a small, a medium and a large papal outfit to fit any size) and he is presented with his new name to the waiting crowds in St Peters Square from the central loggia above the entrance into the basilica. Here he gives his first apostolic blessing, Urbi et Orbi.

His first official function outside the Vatican is to take possession of his church, St John Lateran, as bishop of Rome.