(Photo: Reuters/Eric Gaillard)
With the Vatican's announcement that the Roman Catholic Church will begin voting for the new leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics Tuesday, it is expected that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's successor will be elected by Friday.
There's "no reason to believe it will take long" to elect the new pope, Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Fredrico Lombardi, told reporters Saturday, the day after the Vatican said in a release the Conclave will begin on Tuesday, March 12.
The last six popes were all elected within four days, and the election of Benedict in 2005 took less than 24 hours.
The Vatican said 153 cardinals are in Rome for the meetings, and 115 of them – all aged under 80 – are expected to vote for the next pope. Two have said they will not vote, Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien and Indonesia's Cardinal Julius Darmaatmadja of Jakarta.
O'Brien resigned last week after allegations of sexual advances toward young men studying to be priests, and Darmaatmadja has cited health reasons.
Tuesday morning, the cardinals will hold a formal Mass for the election of a new pope in St. Peter's Basilica, before entering the Sistine Chapel in the afternoon for the first round of voting.
After the opening of the conclave Tuesday, the cardinals will be moved to a special Vatican hotel and will be kept to an even stricter code of secrecy, according to National Catholic Reporter.
Voting will take place in the Sistine Chapel, which has been specially retrofitted for the purpose with a more age-friendly elevated floor, electronic jamming technology, and two furnaces to burn the cardinals' votes after each ballot.
In case no pope emerges on that ballot, the cardinals will continue voting on subsequent days, with two rounds of balloting each morning and evening. If by the third day they do not reach the two-thirds majority required for the election of a new pontiff, voting will be halted for a day of prayer.
Earlier, conclaves were not allowed until 15 days after a pope's resignation or death, but Pope Benedict changed the church law on the matter in one of his last acts as pontiff.
An early conclave has led to speculations that Italian cardinals are seeking to have more influence over the votes, as those from outside Rome have not been given enough time to consider the candidates.
While there's still a lack of clear consensus among the cardinals on who the leading candidates are, some frontrunners being talked about include Italy's Angelo Scola, Brazil's Odilo Pedro Scherer and Canada's Marc Ouellet.
The cardinals are looking to reach a quick decision given they will need to be in their dioceses for Easter celebrations. "It's been 10 days since I left the archdiocese, and as the old song goes, 'I wanna go home!'" U.S. Cardinal Timothy Dolan wrote on a blog Friday.
Benedict announced last month he was resigning, saying, "Strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."