VATICAN CITY — The identity of the new pope fuels enormous anticipation, but the next most breathlessly discussed topic here has been when the cardinals will actually get down to choosing him.
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Cardinal Odilo Scherer of Brazil, center, and Cardinal Geraldo Agnelo of Brazil arrived for a meeting in the Synod Hall at the Vatican on Friday.
Examining the Conclave
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The answer is Tuesday. The cardinals, after five days of meetings and plenty of speculation, settled on the date within a half-hour of the start of an afternoon session on Friday. The news was transmitted by an e-mail from the Vatican press office. Cutting their discussions short suggests that they have moved closer to drawing up a list of candidates, or at least the qualities they want in a new pope — a pastoral communicator, a firm administrator, a reformer of the Vatican’s scandal-tainted bureaucracy. But the field remains wide open, with no one considered a heavy favorite. A two-thirds majority, or 77 of the 115 elector cardinals, is required to elect a pope.
Given the record of conclaves in the past 110 years, it is likely that Catholics will have a new pontiff by the end of next week, in plenty of time for the beginning of Easter ceremonies, starting with Palm Sunday on March 24. The longest of those conclaves was in 1903 (ending in the selection of Pius X) and 1922 (Pius XI), each lasting five days. Three lasted two days, including the one that elected Benedict XVI in 2005.
On Tuesday, the cardinals will first attend a special Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica for papal elections, and then in the afternoon they will file into the Sistine Chapel to begin their secret, anonymous balloting. They will hold one round of voting that afternoon and return to cast their ballots again on Wednesday.
The cardinals began meeting on Monday, four days after Benedict XVI left the Vatican forever as pope, the first man to resign the office in nearly 600 years. As part of the rules of papal transition, the cardinals take charge of the church, gather daily to discuss its future and share their hopes and expectations for the next vicar of Christ on earth.
A logistical task comes next: the assigning by lot of rooms for the 115 cardinals at the Vatican’s Santa Marta residence for the duration of the conclave, where they will be denied contact with the outside world. The random assignments ensure a spirit of objectivity, said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi. It ensures that cardinals cannot pick their neighbors, he added.
At their daily briefing on Friday, Vatican press officials showed silent video images of the modest accommodations — a sitting room with a table and facing chairs, a single bed with a wrought-iron headboard, a small television (which will presumably be removed or deactivated), unadorned white walls. The officials also showed images of a luxury suite destined to house the new pope while his apartment in the Apostolic Palace is prepared.
Father Lombardi said that slightly more than 100 of the 150 or so cardinals present had given short speeches about the state of the church and what was needed in the next pope, a subtle form of politicking and auditioning. Another session is scheduled for Saturday.
Vatican analysts and Vaticanisti, those journalists who closely cover the Holy See and papal matters, have offered theories about the significance of the length of the meetings. One view is that Italian cardinals and insiders wanted to move quickly to a conclave to stave off too much scrutiny of the scandals that have washed over the Vatican in recent months. Another is that outsiders and foreign cardinals feel the need to explore questions of corruption and mismanagement more deeply, pushing to extend the talks.
But other factors are at play. The congregation meetings are the last opportunities for cardinals older than 80 — who are not eligible to vote in the conclave — to voice their views publicly about the direction of the church and the kind of pope who should lead it. A more prosaic cause for the timing of the conclave announcement is an interpretation of Vatican rules on declaring a conclave that requires all the elector cardinals to be present to do so. Cardinal Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man of Vietnam was the last to arrive on Thursday.
The formal discussions have not been organized according to subject matter. The cardinals speak in the order of their requests.
Normally, the conclave should start 15 to 20 days after the end of a papacy, a period intended to include preparations for a papal funeral and for mourning. But Benedict, in the days before he stepped down, revised the rules to allow an earlier start.
Two of the 117 cardinals under 80 are not attending. They are Cardinal Julius Riyadi Darmaatmadja of Indonesia, who cited ill health, and Britain’s most senior cleric, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who said he would not be attending after being accused of “inappropriate acts” with priests. He later acknowledged that he had been guilty of sexual misconduct.
On Friday, the cardinals voted to accept the reasons given for the two absences, as they are required to do. The vote was a reminder of the need to choose a pope who is untainted by improprieties. “They’re very concerned about getting somebody clean,” said Robert Mickens, the Vatican correspondent for The Tablet, a London-based Catholic weekly. “The O’Brien scandal is right in their faces.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 8, 2013
An earlier version of this article misidentified the week in that begins with Palm Sunday, this year on March 24. It is Holy Week, not Easter week. (Easter week is the week that begins with Easter Sunday.)