Election for new pope to begin on Tuesday

Cardinals pass Swiss Guards at the Vatican, 8 March Cardinals will decide the new pope

Roman Catholic cardinals will begin electing a new pope on 12 March, the Vatican has announced after 115 cardinals gathered for talks.

Pope Benedict XVI stepped down last month after nearly eight years in office, becoming the first pontiff to resign in 600 years.

The 85-year-old blamed his failing health for his inability to carry on.

Under the rules of the secret ballot, or conclave, cardinals will vote until one achieves a two-thirds majority.

Correspondents say no one candidate stands out as Benedict XVI's likely successor.

Stoves going in

Analysis

Having a confirmed date for the start of the conclave focuses minds. While general congregations for all cardinals to discuss Church priorities will continue at least until Saturday, the serious business begins on Tuesday.

After all the cardinals celebrate a Mass for the election of a new pope in St Peter's Basilica in the morning, the 115 electors will process into the Sistine Chapel later that afternoon.

Once they have taken an oath of secrecy, the words "Extra omnes" - "Everybody out" - will ring out and the doors will swing shut.

The first smoke will drift out of the chapel's chimney early that evening, after the first vote is taken. It is likely to be black - meaning no Pope - as no frontrunner has emerged in the five days of general discussions so far.

From Wednesday, two votes will be held each morning and afternoon - with ballots burned after each session at around 12:00 (11:00 GMT) and 18:00 - until one candidate attains 77 votes - a two-thirds majority. And then the smoke will be white.

The vote will be preceded by Mass on Tuesday morning, with the first ballot due in the afternoon, the Vatican press office said.

Vatican staff have been preparing the Sistine Chapel, where the conclave will take place, installing the two stoves that will produce white smoke from burnt ballot papers when a new pope is elected.

The last election in 2005 took three days, and correspondents say the number of meetings this time is being seen as a reflection of the many challenges facing the Church.

Despite the vows of secrecy, Italian newspapers have been publishing what they say are leaked details of debate among cardinals on problems faced by the Church.

Reform of the Vatican's bureaucracy - known as the Curia - and the Vatican bank have both been on the agenda, the reports say.

Last year, European regulators said the bank was not doing enough to combat money laundering, while intrigue in the Vatican was revealed by documents leaked by Pope Benedict's butler.

US Cardinal Timothy Dolan wrote on a blog that most of the discussions covered preaching and teaching the Catholic faith, tending to Catholic schools and hospitals, protecting families and the unborn, and supporting and recruiting priests.

"Those are the 'big issues'," he wrote.

"You may find that hard to believe, since the 'word on the street' is that all we talk about is corruption in the Vatican, sexual abuse, money. Do these topics come up? Yes! Do they dominate? No!"

During Benedict's reign the Catholic Church was wracked by a worldwide scandal over the sexual abuse of children by priests.

There are also tensions between traditionalists and reformers over issues including priestly celibacy, gay rights and the role of women.

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