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."
The conclave date announcement comes after five full days of pre-conclave congregations with the College of Cardinals.
Before the congregations began Monday, Lombardi said the decision on the conclave's start date would be made only after all the 115 cardinal electors expected to participate in the conclave were in Rome; the last of them, Cardinal Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man of Vietnam, arrived Thursday.
When it starts, the conclave will take place under a cloud of controversy, stemming mostly from charges that some of the cardinals are guilty of helping cover up evidence of sex scandals within the church. The Vatican Bank is also under investigation by Italian authorities on suspicion of money laundering.
Italian newspapers have speculated that the bubbling scandals, along with the pontiff's advanced age and fading health, may have been among the reasons Benedict decided to abdicate, the first pope in nearly 600 years to do so.
Marco della Cava and Eric J. Lyman, USA TODAY