ROME - 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."
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."