VATICAN CITY -- On Tuesday, the Holy See revealed the name Pope Benedict XVI will use after he leaves office and the shoes he will wear during his retirement in the Vatican gardens. On Wednesday, Benedict delivered an emotional farewell performance and took a last spin in the Popemobile. And on Thursday, he will bid adieu to his cardinals and officially exit the scene at 8 p.m.
Now, on to the main event.
The conclave, Latin for "with a key," is a process in which voting-age cardinals are shut in the Sistine Chapel to elect the next pope. "I'm asked when it will be 10 times a day, at least," said the somewhat exasperated Vatican spokesman, Federico Lombardi.
The timing matters, not just for news organizations but for the cardinals, who bear the responsibility of picking a leader with the best chance of addressing the monumental challenges facing the church.
"A shorter time span before the conclave starts favors the well-known faces," said John Thavis, a longtime church reporter and the author of "The Vatican Diaries." Because cardinals rarely assemble as a single body, the top prelates who serve as officials in the Roman Curia, the bureaucracy that governs the Vatican, are the most familiar. They have the opportunity to meet -- some skeptics might say glad-hand -- out-of-town voters whenever they are in Rome.
Potential beneficiaries include power players such as Argentine Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, a Vatican grandee with Italian lineage; Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops; and the long-shot Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture.
Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the archbishop of Genoa and president of the Italian Episcopal Conference, who is also mentioned on papal shortlists, said Tuesday that the cardinals should start the conclave as soon as possible. "The church in its wisdom and experience, and in accordance with a very strict code, is moving towards the earliest possible conclave," he said, according to the Italian news agency ANSA.
In 2005, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the church's highly visible doctrinal watchdog, seemed to benefit from the quick turnaround.
"It's an open secret that last time, the cardinals didn't know each other that well," said Thavis, who added that cardinals who run dioceses around the world would generally prefer a longer time period to allow the views and voices of the lesser-known among them to be heard. This time, nearly half of the cardinals have participated in a previous conclave. "They don't want to be rushed like last time, when they picked the most familiar face."
An apostolic constitution issued by Pope John Paul II in 1996 stipulated that the cardinals had to wait at least 15 days after a pope's death to begin a conclave, giving their colleagues time to get to Rome and attend the funeral of the deceased patriarch.
Benedict's resignation may have granted him the fantasy of attending, or at least reading about, his own funeral, but it also has created a great deal of confusion. On Monday, he amended the conclave law, giving the College of Cardinals the authority to choose the date to start the selection process.
As it now stands, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the dean of the College of Cardinals, will on Friday convoke the cardinals' first assembly, meetings in which the gathered princes of the church chat formally about the issues before them. Eight years ago, then-Cardinal Deacon Ratzinger chaired 13 General Congregations in the Vatican's Synod Hall. Once the cardinals entered the Sistine Chapel, Ratzinger was chosen on the fourth ballot, within 24 hours of the doors closing.
It is likely that the cardinals will need a couple of meetings for the ice to break and for such major themes as the direction of the papacy and the reforms needed in the Curia to take shape. Thavis said the lack of an obvious candidate might prompt the cardinals to stay out of the conclave as long as possible, even weeks, to avoid an extended stay in the Sistine Chapel, where politicking among cardinals is even more taboo than it is outside the Vatican walls. A lengthy conclave could bring with it the pressure of thinking that the whole world considers the cardinals indecisive -- or worse, bereft of a solid candidate.
Once the cardinals do set a date, the conclave to choose Benedict's successor will be the 75th since 1295, a few decades before the church chose its last pope outside of the College of Cardinals.
The conclave was a necessary innovation. After years without a pope, frustrated Catholics threw the indecisive electors in a building, removed its roof and fed them only bread and water.
Now the conclave takes place under Michelangelo's frescoes. The cardinals stay in Domus Sanctae Marthae, a five-story (if not five-star) Vatican residence built in 1996 with 105 two-room suites and 26 single rooms. The big news last time was that the rooms, which are assigned by lot to the cardinals, had been furnished with showers.
Inside the Sistine Chapel, there will be 115 electors of an average age of 72. More than half are European, and nearly half of those are from Italy. About 34 percent come from Asia, Africa and Latin America, with the United States contributing about 9.4 percent and Canada a little less than 3 percent. About 45 percent work or have worked in the Roman Curia.
Two cardinals under the voting-age limit of 80 are staying home, one in Indonesia with eye problems, another in Britain to face accusations of inappropriately touching other priests.
In addition to the cardinals, there are doctors, nurses, priests and liturgical assistants on call and sworn to secrecy. On Monday, Benedict, whose last year in office was overcast by a leak scandal, stipulated that if they share any information about the conclave, they will automatically be excommunicated. (The cardinals are immune, so the Italian press will probably get a vote tally.)
When the conclave finally begins, the voting cardinals proceed in scarlet vestments from the Pauline Chapel of the Apostolic Palace to the Sistine Chapel, where they take an oath of secrecy and vow to resist influence from outside meddlers, whether secular states or, as the Vatican suggested this month, the media. Once the cardinals are sworn in, everyone else is kicked out with a cry of "Extra omnes."
With the doors closed, an agreed-upon prelate offers a prayer encouraging them to think piously of the good of the universal church. He then exits with the master of papal liturgical ceremony, leaving the cardinals alone with ballots reading "Eligo in summum pontificem" ("I elect as supreme pontiff") across the top of each card.
The votes are tallied, and the ballots are stored in urns. Inconclusive ballots are mixed with a chemical and burned to make black smoke, which prompts groans from the papal-burn watchers in St. Peter's Square.
When the next pope is elected, Giovanni Battista Re, the highest-ranking cardinal dean under 80, will ask him, "Do you accept your canonical election as supreme pontiff?" If he says yes, he's expected to change his name, a practice dating back to 533, when a prelate bearing the pagan name Mercury opted for John.
The conclusive ballots are then treated with a formula that produces white smoke, the crowd outside roars, and Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the church's most senior cardinal in the order of deacons, heads to the balcony to announce "Habemus papam" -- "We have a pope."