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Last Updated: Saturday, 16 April, 2005, 18:03 GMT 19:03 UK
Pontiff's seal and ring destroyed
Pope John Paul II
The new pope will have his name engraved on a new ring
Pope John Paul II's personal ring and seal have been destroyed in a symbolic ritual marking the end of his reign over the Roman Catholic Church.

The ritual was performed by the chamberlain, or camerlengo, Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo, who is in charge until a new pope is elected.

Cardinals also held their final meeting before the secretive conclave to elect a new pontiff, which starts on Monday.

A final Mass also marked the end of the Vatican's nine-day mourning period.

John Paul II died on 2 April and was buried a week later at the Vatican Basilica.

Paving the way

Cardinal Somalo broke the Fisherman's Ring and the lead seal used to authenticate papal letters, "as foreseen by the Apostolic Constitution", Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said.

Sistine Chapel view where cardinals will choose the new pope

The ritual was attended by 143 cardinals - the "princes" of the Catholic Church.

A new ring is cast in gold for each pontiff.

It has a relief of St Peter - revered as the first pope and said to have been a fisherman. The pope's name is written in Latin on the ring.

Historically, the pope would use the ring to seal private documents and the lead seal for public documents.

Tell-tale chimney

In preparation for the conclave, a chimney pipe has been put up that will first tell the world that a new pope has been elected.

The rust-coloured pipe has been fixed to the roof of the Sistine Chapel, where 115 cardinals under the age of 80 will set about choosing a new pope - the Catholic Church's 265th pontiff.

Worker putting up the chimney
This will become one of the most avidly watched objects in the world
They will hold two balloting sessions a day - each with two votes.

The cardinals and all Vatican workers are sworn to secrecy about the proceedings.

If no candidate secures a majority, the ballots are placed in a stove and burned with an additive to produce black smoke.

When the cardinals reach a decision, ballots are burned with an additive to produce white smoke.

During the last conclave in 1978, the smoke that announced the election of John Paul II came out grey and was difficult to see.

So this time, the bells of St Peter's Basilica will also ring to announce the result of the vote.

Even before the conclave, Italian media outlets are reporting that the cardinals have signed a petition asking the next pope to put the late pontiff on the fast track for sainthood.

The archbishop in charge of the commission that investigates claims for sainthood has said the process of canonising John Paul II could begin as early as October, and result in his sainthood within six months.

Canonisation is not usually considered until at least five years after a person's death.

But Pope John Paul II himself speeded up the normal process to beatify Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

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