Cardinals Set March 12 for Start of Vote to Choose New Pope

The Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church will begin their secret vote to choose the successor to retired Pope Benedict XVI on March 12, paving the way for a new pontiff to be in place before Easter.

The cardinals set the date yesterday during their fifth day of preliminary talks to prepare the vote, the Vatican said in an e-mailed statement. The election, known as the conclave, is held in the 15th-century Sistine Chapel and attended by the 115 cardinals under the voting-age limit of 80.

“A ‘pro eligendo Romano Pontifice’ Mass will be celebrated in St. Peter’s Basilica in the morning,” the statement said. “In the afternoon the cardinals will enter into the conclave.”

Cardinals from more than 50 nations and six continents, including those not of voting age, have spent the last week discussing challenges facing the Catholic church and sizing up papal candidates, including the possibility of electing the first non-European pope in 1,500 years. The March 12 start dates makes it more likely a new pope will be installed by the March 24th start of Holy Week, which begins on Palm Sunday and runs through Easter.

Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola is currently the favorite to become the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics with 3-to-1 odds to take over after Benedict’s Feb. 28 abdication, according to betting company Paddy Power Plc. Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana was second at 7-to-2 with Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone following on odds of 9-to-2.

Secret Vote

The German-born Benedict, 85, became the first pope in 600 years to abdicate when he stepped down, saying he no longer had the strength to lead the church. Electing his successor, the 266th pope, involves a secret, centuries-old procedure that will offer few signs about the winner until white smoke wafts over St. Peter’s Square.

Only one ballot is held on the first day of the conclave. On the following days as many as four votes can be conducted. If no candidate reaches the threshold of two-thirds of the votes cast, the ballots are burned with a chemical to emit black smoke that floats over St. Peter’s square. White smoke signals a new pope, who is then accompanied to a balcony overlooking St. Peter’s for his presentation to the world.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI, was chosen on the second day of voting in 2005, while John Paul II needed three days to become pontiff. One conclave in the 13th century dragged on for three years.

Contraception, Women

The new pope will inherit a church grappling over such issues as contraception and allowing a bigger role for women. Among his main tasks will be tackling priest sex abuse scandals and possible a reform of the Curia, the Holy See’s bureaucracy, after leaked papal documents last year depicted a web of Vatican intrigue.

The cardinals will be sequestered in the Sistine Chapel, adorned with Michelangelo’s frescoes, and barred from contact with the outside world. Disobeying the election’s secrecy rules may result in excommunication.

On the conclave’s first morning, the cardinals hold a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica and in the afternoon gather in formal dress in the Pauline Chapel of the Apostolic Palace, then move to the Sistine Chapel, which is swept for any electronic listening devices. The chapel is locked and sealed, the senior cardinal administers an oath of secrecy and the election begins.

One ballot may be conducted on the first day. If no candidate secures the necessary two-thirds of the vote, the balloting continues the next day, with as many as four votes, two in the morning and two in the afternoon.

Of the 115 cardinal electors, sixty-seven of the electors were created by Benedict and the remaining 48 by John Paul II, his predecessor. Benedict was elected after two days and four ballots on April 19, 2005, 17 days after John Paul’s death.

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