VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Before they get down to the business of choosing a new pope this week, the 115 elector cardinals are holding another ballot - drawing lots to decide which room they get in the Vatican guest house that will be their home during the conclave.
Some will be disappointed, because the five-storey Santa Martha House inside the walls of Vatican City, has only 106 “suites”. Despite the grandiose name, these rooms have just a single bed, bathroom and a small desk space.
The nine cardinals who miss out on the suites will have to settle for more spartan single rooms.
However basic the Santa Martha accommodation, it is a step up from where cardinals used to sleep before the guest house was built in 1996 on the orders of Pope John Paul II.
During earlier conclaves, they had makeshift beds in temporary quarters in the Vatican, with curtains often all that divided one space from another, like on a hospital ward.
As well as allocating the rooms fairly, drawing lots is designed to make sure factions from one country or supporting one candidate are given rooms randomly to prevent them consulting on strategy from adjoining parts of the guest house.
Standing empty for the new pope will be the larger but nevertheless simple Room 201, the sole apartment in the yellow-stone residence block.
It has carved wooden fittings and additional rooms to host meetings for the new pontiff, who could live there for a few weeks until the papal Apostolic Palace has been renovated.
Adding to Santa Martha’s austere feel, television, telephone, Wi-Fi and other means of communication are blocked to maintain the secrecy of the conclave.
Santa Martha is only a few hundred yards from the Sistine Chapel where the cardinals will start the process on Tuesday of electing a successor to Pope Benedict after his decision last month to step down.
Cardinals, many of them elderly, will be able to use a shuttle bus to get to the chapel if they do not want to walk or if Rome sees one of its spectacular spring storms.
The elector cardinals used Santa Martha for the first time in 2005 when Benedict was chosen to lead the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics after the death of John Paul.
The building stands on the site of a hospice built in 1891 for cholera victims.
Two doctors will be on hand in case any of the cardinals fall ill, while priests will hear confessions in a variety of languages. Like the cardinals, they will be sworn to secrecy.
As with any guest house or hotel, cooks and cleaners will also be there to attend to the needs of the cardinals. All the staff will have been vetted to help ensure that no secrets leak out before white smoke emerges to show a pope has been picked.
Editing by Louise Ireland and Barry Moody