By Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY
Thursday night in Rome, when the Catholic Church of more than 1 billion souls is abruptly without a pope, who's minding the store?
Vatican operations essentially go as still as the characters in Sleeping Beauty - frozen in time as of 8 p.m. there (2 p.m. E.T) until the new pope is installed, likely before Easter.
Friday, the call goes out to the world's 208 cardinals - those who have not already arrived in Rome - to head for the Holy See. As early as Monday, they may begin meeting in advisory groups. Their first task: set the date for the conclave when the new pope will be chosen.
In the interim, the church's canon law spells out what must and what may not be done while the papacy is vacant. Since a pope hasn't resigned in 600 years, that means following the rules for after a pope has died, says John Thavis, author of Vatican Diaries, a book about 30 years reporting on the Holy See.
All the arrangements are set by the camerlengo (chamberlain of the Church) chosen by the pope. Benedict chose Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of State,for that role but there's little for him to do with no funeral to arrange.
All the cardinals and archbishops in the curia, the bureaucracy of the Church, lose their jobs on Feb. 28. It's a bit like all the U.S. president's cabinet resigning after a presidential election so the new head of state can name his team. But in the Holy See, many cardinals expect they'll be asked to stay on in the next papacy, Thavis said. In the curia, which dates back to the Middle Ages, "continuity is an extremely high value."
Meanwhile, Vatican offices will be run by secretaries who handle ordinary, minor duties. All serious or controversial matters await the next pontiff. But decisions that are made are provisional, waiting the new pope's confirmation, says Rev. Thomas Reese, author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics & Organization of the Catholic Church, and an analyst for The National Catholic Reporter.
Only three major officials keep their posts in the period between Benedict's resignation and a successor elected: The vicar of the diocese of Rome who cares for the city's pastoral needs; the major penitentiary who deals with the Holy See's confessional needs so there is always access to forgiveness; and the camerlengo, Bertone, who will deal with property and financial decisions for the Vatican for the time being.
During the period between popes, Bertone will report to the College of Cardinals. But the electors - the cardinals under the age of 80 - are limited in what they can do until they choose a new pope.
As of Thursday, there were 117 cardinals eligible to vote but only 115 are expected in Rome. An Indonesian cardinal is too ill to travel and Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien, embroiled in allegations of misconduct with men in the 1980s, said Monday he will not come to vote.
Between now and the secret conclave, Rome is slowly filling with cardinals shmoozing with each other about what the church needs most in a new vicar of Christ and who is the ultimate papabile - Italian for someone with the qualities of a pope.
Whomever wins should react with both surprise and humility: Public campaigning for the post has been strictly forbidden since the Fifth Century. Italian cardinals and those who serve in the curia have "home field advantage," Reese says. They can host private dinners in their apartments, out of the public eye.
On the eve of the conclave, the electors will move into a special Vatican residence, the Domus Sanctae Marthae, with 105 two-room suites and 26 single rooms built in 1996.
They can't move in now because room assignments will be made by drawing lots, Vatican spokesman Frederico Lombardi says. And besides, the rooms aren't ready. They're being aired out, cleaned and swept for communications bugs - a routine procedure, he said.
Once inside the Sistine Chapel, there will be no outside communications. In the age of Twitter, the world will still have to wait for white smoke and the sounding of the biggest bell at St. Peter's Basilica, to find out who is the new pope.
His Holiness Benedict XVI Roman Pontiff Emeritus will rest at Castel Gandolfo, the papal retreat, when someone new assumes the title of His Holiness the Pope and 10 more - Bishop of Rome; Vicar of Jesus Christ; successor of St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Patriarch of the West, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City, and Servant of the Servants of God.
For now, the busiest people in Rome may be the tailors at Gammarelli ecclesiastical tailoring shop. They're stitching up the vestments for the new pope in small, medium and large sizes so that whoever is chosen will fit right in.