VATICAN CITY - Finally, at least one wait is over.
The conclave to select the next leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics will begin Tuesday, Vatican officials said Friday, capping a week of meetings among cardinals that created a stir due to leaks and an eventual press blackout.
With the date set for the start of the conclave - Latin for "with key," referring to the voters being locked inside the Sistine Chapel - the 115 cardinals will begin their move this weekend into the Domus Santa Marta, a modest five-story building tucked securely behind Vatican walls that features 106 suites, 22 single rooms and one apartment.
After morning prayers on Tuesday, the first balloting could take place that afternoon, says Rev. Thomas Reese, analyst for the National Catholic Reporter and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church.
"That first vote is at their discretion, which is about the only optional thing on the agenda," says Reese. "But when they're not voting there will be lots of talks outside of the Sistine Chapel, in rooms and at dinner. Names will bubble up that will be tested in the conclave."
There will be four votes per day. In 2005, it took just two days to select Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the next pope. Reese says he doubts this one will last longer than three or four days, noting that the last time a conclave lasted more than four days was in 1831.
"If someone gets 60 quickly, but stalls there, they'll have to go back and start renegotiating," says Reese, nothing that the winner must have a two-thirds majority. "But they should take their time. This is the most important thing these men will do in their lifetimes. A bishop could miss Holy Week (back home) and survive. But if they make the wrong choice for pope, they church will really be in trouble."
The conclave date announcement came after five full days of pre-conclave congregations with the College of Cardinals.
Traditionally, there is a 15- to 20-day waiting period between the death of a pope and the start of a conclave. But because of Pope Benedict's startling resignation, there was more time for a bulk of the cardinals to arrive in Rome, shrinking two weeks of meetings to just one. The time likely proved adequate for the task of sorting though the contenders, says Rev. Alistair Sear, a retired professor of theology and church historian.
"The five days no doubt gave a chance for the cardinals to get to know each other better, to compare notes," says Sear. "It opens the field up and makes a dark-horse selection more likely. I think it's much harder now to handicap the field than it was in 2005."
As mysterious and elaborate as the Catholic Church's pontifical ritual may be, in the end the choosing of a new pope isn't terribly different from a political campaign, with the noted exception that it is considered unseemly for a cardinal to press his own case for the papacy.
Nearly a quarter of the cardinals "were appointed in the past few years alone, so many are simply not known, and they don't know some of the more established names either," says Reese.
It's possible that the past week has been spent less on vetting candidates and more on simply outlining what qualities the next pope should possess, says Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Canadian priest and the Vatican's English-language press secretary.
"The time they've all spent together so far has been to create a profile of the next pope," he says. "The next step will be to see who best fits that profile."
The timing of events so far sits right with Salvatore Bello, 40, a security consultant. "They have proceeded very deliberately, which is smart," he says. "If it were up to me, I'd pick someone young and worldly. Someone who can work 18 hours a day if needed to clean up the problems the church is having."
But while the election of the next pope consumes local media, which handicaps contenders as if they were top soccer teams, it amuses nursing student Maria Teresa Pugliese, 25.
"It's funny that everyone is trying to guess who the next pope will be," she says. "The answer will come in (the cardinal's) prayers. They will be led to make the right choice, to find the person who will make the church stronger."
Trouble has swirled around the church and indeed the pre-conclave, as cardinals contended not only with the now-familiar child abuse accusations but also questions about the Vatican Bank's operations. What's more, details of pre-conclave meetings were leaked to an Italian newspaper, eventually leading to a complete media blackout.
Given that, it is likely with some relief that the cardinals now decamp behind the imposing brick walls of Vatican City, where efforts will be made to prevent news from getting both in and out.
"There is much for the cardinals to consider as they head into the conclave, especially their stated desire to be more transparent on the pedophilia issue while not being traitorous to their identity as an organization," says Paolo Rodari of Rome's La Repubblica newspaper, which has been covering the Vatican since 2004.
Rodari says that while in 2005 "Ratzinger's name was on everyone's lips going into the conclave," this time things don't appear as clear cut. While he cites Milanese Cardinal Angelo Scola as one potential front-runner, "there's also a temptation to go to the U.S. and consider (Cardinal Timothy) Dolan and (Cardinal Sean) O'Malley."