TODAY   |  March 12, 2013

Cardinals to begin conclave, hold one vote today

This afternoon, 115 cardinals will file into the Sistine Chapel to begin discussions on who among them will be the next pope. NBC’s Lester Holt reports and Claudio Lavagna, NBC’s Rome correspondent, and Father Robert Barron discuss the decision-making process.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> all eyes are on the vatican where the cardinals are hours away from taking their first vote in the process of selecting the next pope. nbc's lester holt is there watching the smokestack for us. good morning to you.

>> reporter: matt, good morning. the cardinals started their day at a mass inside the cathedral -- inside the basilica where there was a call a for unity in the catholic church . this will be a day mostly of prayer, pomp and certainly ancient tradition. we expect it to end with the first vote and the first puff of smoke as the cardinals get down to the business of electing a new pope. for the voting cardinals , it was their last contact with the general public until after they effect a new pope. an open mass celebrated in latin that drew thousands into the vatican basilica . later today , the 115 princes of the catholic church will offer more prayers in a private setting before filing into the sistine chapel . there will be no more than one vote held this afternoon or early evening. vatican experts say to look for black smoke from the chapel's chimney -- an indication that the cardinals have not yet reached a decision.

>> there is zero chance of electing a pope on one ballot.

>> reporter: on monday the cardinals held their last formal meeting to size up the size of the church and to size up each other. in choosing a leader of the church they are choosing their own boss. new york's cardinal timothy do lan said on sirius xm radio he's ready.

>> even today we began to get into the qualities we want in the new holy father. it was enriching i.'m glad they're over. we came to elect a pope.

>> reporter: part of the process included swearing in 90 staff members from medical to cleaning personnel who will attend to the cardinals during the conclave to an oath of secrecy. if a pope is not chosen today the cardinals will take two votes wednesday morning and two in the afternoon. then each day through friday with a pause on saturday. only the color of smoke from an otherwise unremarkable chimney pipe will tell us when the work of the cardinals is done. and then only from this papal balcony will we learn his name. the american cardinals got a rousing send-off and ovation as they left the pontifical north american college en route to mass. they were relaxed before getting down to the business of voting for the new pope. matt, if there is a vote today we would expect to see smoke if it's going to happen, sometime roughly around 3:00 eastern time .

>> lester, thank you very much. father robert baron is is b an nbc news analyst and claudio lavonga is o italian cardinals and the italians make up 28 cardinals among 115. it's the biggest contingency by nation, of course. the next will be the american cardinals from the united states . that's 11 cardinals . now, they have different views. the italians want to keep things as they are, even though many cardinals criticized the way the vatican has been run by the roman courier. you may think of it as the government. the italians are known as the old guard while the opposite faction is the reformers led by the americans . those who want to internationalize the vatican and push forward the mission of evan evangeli zarks tion. the top runners are angelo scola and the reformers are led by two american cardinals , cardinal timothy do lan and cardinal sean o'malley. matt?

>> it seems counterintuitive that the romans, this largely european group, might be backing a brazilian cardinal.

>> we heard they were getting behind him as a front or a face for the movement. the word here is that balloon has burst and he probably isn't going to get the support he requires. something i find fascinating is there are italians and europeans backing the reform party . many here are looking to americans for a variety of reasons. one is good old american pragmaticism. others have been dealing with the sex abuse crisis for a long time. they have the nknow-how. you asked me a few weeks ago about an american candidate . now we have not one but two. if sean o'malley comes out as the new pope he can address the crowd effortlessly in a variety of languages. that struck a number of people here, i have heard. americans are known as the people who just know english. sean o'malley got up in the congregations, spoke in perfect italian. impressed the europeans. to me that's the most fascinating development in this whole thing.

>> to end with you, george weigel said there is zero chance the pope will be effected on the first ballot. what are the predictions there? what are people in the know predicting in terms of the length of the conclave?

>> well, matt, if you think of this has a political election, this will be -- today's voting will be the primaries. the cardinals will figure out how many votes the frontrunners will have. we don't know if the ones we mentioned are the front runners . that should bring down the numbers of possible candidates from 115 -- of course all the cardinals -- to three or four who have the backing of the majority. so, in a way, it's rare and almost impossible that if they vote this afternoon, because they may decide not to, we will get black smoke simply because they need 77 votes out of 115. they're not going to get it tonight.