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Cardinal Peter Turkson (C) of Ghana attends a mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican March 12, 2013. All cardinals, including those over 80 who will not vote in the conclave, celebrate Mass in St Peter's Basilica to pray for the election of the new pope. The Mass is called "Pro Eligendo Romano Pontefice" ("For the Election of the Roman Pontiff") and is open to the public.STEFANO RELLANDINI/Reuters

For live coverage as cardinals begin to select a new pope, click here.

The 115 princes of the Roman Catholic church filed into St. Peter's Basilica to celebrate Mass Tuesday morning. It was the cardinals' last public appearance before they disappear into the Sistine Chapel to begin the momentous task of electing the next pope.

The cardinals came two at a time from the rear right of the basilica and walked slowly up the centre aisle to the altar, hands clenched, their faces apparently strained from the pressure each will endure in the coming days, for electing a pope is their greatest duty. With their towering white mitre hats and resplendent red robes. Each in his own way looked rather pope-like.

The basilica was utterly packed with pilgrims, tourists and journalists and they were treated to a spectacle. The Vatican can rely on two millennia of showmanship and knows how to impress a crowd.

The cardinals, among them Canada's Marc Ouellet, one of the front-runners, collected behind the altar, forming glorious rings of red. The other clerics formed a sea of white around them and the Mass was sung in Latin, and rather good singing it was, too.

Making her first visit to Rome, Maureen Postance, a retired nurse who lives near Oxford, England, could not believe her luck. Their trip had not been planned to coincide with the cardinals' conclave and there she was, watching the start of the premature election triggered last month by the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.

"It's very exciting to be here at the right time," she said. "It's fabulous. The costumes give you a sense of the importance. I love the ceremony and pageantry of it all."

The homily was given by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the dean of the College of Cardinals. He is the man that sometime later this week will appear on the balcony on the facade of St. Peter's, overlooking the vast square, and announce "Habemus papum" – We have a pope. The new pope will then appear on the balcony and a new era in the church will begin.

Cardinal Sodano's message was one of love and unity, reminding the audience that "the fundamental attitude of the pastors of the church is love. It is this love that urges us to offer our own lives for our brothers and sisters."

There was a message for the next pope. He said: "The last popes have been builders of so many good initiatives for people and for the international community, tirelessly promoting justice and peace. Let us pray the future pope may continues this unceasing work on the world level."

The 115 elector cardinals (those under age 80) are expected to enter the Sistine Chapel about 4:45 p.m. local time, with the first ballot coming shortly thereafter. The first smoke from the chapel chimney – black for an inconclusive vote, white for the winner – is expected in the early evening. In subsequent days, four ballots will be held each day until one cardinal achieves a two-thirds majority: 77 votes.

The Vatican press office expects the new pope to be elected by Friday, though it could come a day or two earlier if the field narrows quickly. Cardinal Ouellet is still one of the favourites, ranking fourth or fifth among the bookmakers.