VATICAN CITY (CBS / AP) — The Vatican said Friday that cardinals gathered in Rome to elect a new pope would begin the actual election process, known as the papal conclave, on Tuesday.
In a statement released by the press office of the Holy See, the Vatican said the cardinals – including Cardinal William Levada, the former San Francisco Archbishop – will celebrate Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica Tuesday morning and then enter into the conclave in the afternoon.
All week long the cardinals have been meeting in private discussions about issues facing the church. Once the conclave begins, the talking is over.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the pre-conclave meetings had given the cardinals a chance to discuss the “profile, characteristics, qualities and talents” a future pope must have.
Those closed-door deliberations, he said, provided an opportunity for discussion and information-gathering so the cardinals could go into the conclave ready to cast their ballots. “The preparation is absolutely fundamental,” Lombardi said.
The ritual election process allows for virtually no banter or debate as the prelates repeatedly cast their secret, handwritten ballots until a pope is elected with at least a 77-vote (or two-thirds) majority from the available 115 cardinal electors.
That said, there doesn’t appear to be a front-runner to succeed Pope Benedict XVI. So, it becomes a matter of consensus-building in order to reach the two-thirds majority needed to elect a pope – a process that for the past century has taken no more than a few days.
Benedict himself was elected on the fourth round of voting in 2005, a day after the conclave began – one of the fastest papal elections in recent times. His predecessor, John Paul II, was chosen following eight ballots over three days in 1978.
In the past 100 years, no conclave has lasted longer than five days.
On Tuesday, after the morning Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, it will be followed by a procession into the Sistine Chapel and the first round of secret balloting in the afternoon.
If black smoke is sent snaking out of the chapel chimney to indicate there is no victor, the cardinals will retire for the day. They return Wednesday for two rounds of balloting in the morning and two rounds in the afternoon, a process repeated each day, with occasional breaks for reflection, until a pope emerges.
According to Vatican analysts, it appeared the cardinals timed the conclave to ensure a pope would be elected and installed well ahead of the busy Holy Week that precedes Easter, beginning with Palm Sunday on March 24.
(Copyright 2013 CBS San Francisco. CBS News and the Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved.)