The conclave to elect the next pope will start Tuesday, March 12, the Vatican announced Friday.
"The eighth General Congregation of the College of Cardinals has decided that the Conclave for the election of the Pope will begin on Tuesday, 12 March 2013," said a statement. The conclave to elect the 266th pontiff follows the shocking resignation of Benedict XVI, who on February 28 became the first pope to abdicate in 600 years. Next week on Tuesday morning, cardinals will celebrate a pre-conclave mass known as the pro eligendo Summo Pontefice asking God to enlighten them. That afternoon, they will enter the Sistine Chapel for the start of the conclave. Some analysts have predicted that a new pope may emerge by the end of the week.
The cardinals meeting at the pre-conclave general congregations since Monday had so far been in no rush to set a date. Benedict changed the rules for the conclave in his final days as pontiff to make it possible for it to be held before the 15-20 days after the end of the previous papacy, given that he had stepped down, not died, and there was no funeral to organise. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the cardinals wanted to make sure they were properly prepared before making a decision that will shape the future of the Catholic Church under Michelangelo's famous frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. The news of the conclave date came after the last of 115 cardinal electors, Jean Baptiste Pahm Minh Man of Vietnam, arrived in Rome on Thursday for the general congregations, which enable the cardinals to get to know each other better and share ideas about what characteristics the next leader of the Catholic Church should have. Over 150 cardinals are taking part in the congregations, but only 115 will participate in the conclave because only those under 80 are eligible to vote. The fact that the cardinals have taken their time about setting a conclave date does not necessarily mean the election itself will be long.
Some cardinals reportedly want to move quickly in order to have a new pontiff installed before Palm Sunday, March 24, so he could preside over the Holy Week ceremonies that lead up to Easter. Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl, however, does not think it will be a short conclave. "It will not be short. A lot will depend on the first few days, also because there is not yet a clear choice on the candidates," Wuerl told Turin newspaper La Stampa.
The next pope will have to win the votes of at least 77 of the 155 cardinals taking part in the upcoming conclave, Lombardi said Friday. Benedict XVI changed the rules of the conclave so that a two-thirds majority is needed for a cardinal to become pontiff. The 85-year-old only needed a simple majority of over half of the cardinals to be elected at the 2005 conclave that took place after John Paul II's death. The figure needed to win a two-thirds majority has changed slightly after the number of cardinal electors dropped from 117 when two pulled out. Lombardi said Friday that the cardinals had accepted the withdrawal of Indonesian Cardinal Julius Riyadi Darmaatmadja and British Cardinal Keith O'Brien. Darmaatmadja, 78, the archbishop emeritus of Jakarta, will not attend due to poor health. O'Brien resigned as archbishop of Scotland after admitting to inappropriate sexual conduct in the 1980s with a number of seminarists. Benedict, 85, stepped down after announcing on February 11 that he no longer had the mental and physical strength to lead the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
Work on preparing the Sistine Chapel for the conclave is progressing well. Journalists were shown a film of the preparation work at a press conference on Thursday. It featured workers blacking out the windows to the ancient chapel to ensure secrecy and the installation of the chimney stack through which the world will first come to know when a pope has been elected, with white smoke coming out if one has, black if not.