Fervent 24-hour prayers in Rome to inspire cardinals

VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Catholics young and old are gathering for fervent prayer around the clock in Rome to support cardinals entering a secret conclave to choose a new pope after Benedict XVI's surprise resignation.

"We'll be praying for the cardinals until a decision is made, it's the part we play in the conclave," said sister Celestina, 62, a nun from Croatia.

"The Church is like a boat, all the faithful are sailing in it together but we're without a helmsman at the moment," she said, kneeling to pray in front of a portrait of John Paul II in the Santo Spirito in Sassia church in Rome.

A stone's throw from the Sistine Chapel where 115 cardinals will choose a new pope, young Catholics from all over the world were turning not to Benedict, but to his much-loved and charismatic predecessor to guide the electors.

"We have been to pray at John Paul II's tomb, to ask for his intervention and prays, and place our trust in him," said Fabien Lambert, chaplain of the 12th-century Saint Lawrence in Piscibus church and international youth centre in Rome.

"We are holding non-stop prayers here, day and night, asking people to come and support the cardinals with their prayers," the 34-year-old Belgian said.

St. Peter's Square is teeming with the faithful, who weave among the tourists to stand in front of the basilica and gaze up at the balcony where the new pope will make his first appearance to the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.

Priests, monks and nuns crossing the Via della Conciliazione leading from Rome's Tiber river to the Vatican are pounced on by hordes of journalists keen for interviews to feed their 24-hour media coverage.

"This conclave is not all about the journalists. Beyond the drama and intrigue over who will be chosen pope, we must remember our spiritual mission and pray for a man who we can see in his eyes is God's witness," Lambert said.

Roger Seogo, a priest from Burkino Faso in west Africa, said there had been a lot of talk about whether the new pope could come from Africa or Asia in a break from tradition. But for him, nationality or culture was irrelevant.