Vatican officials on Friday confirmed that the College of Cardinals will begin the papal conclave on Tuesday, March 12, and while they now know when they'll start to deliberate, there seems little agreement on who the next pontiff should be.
VATICAN CITY - With the decision to hold the conclave next week, on Tuesday, and not sooner, experts say cardinals may be feeling uncertainty heading into the weekend as they prepare to elect the successor to Pope Benedict XVI.
"The fact that they're opening on Tuesday shows what we've been hearing right all along, is that there isn't a real strong consensus on a slate of candidates to move forward," said Dennis Coday, editor with the National Catholic Reporter. "Because what the Cardinals have been telling us all this week is that they would meet in these general congregations as long as it took so that they felt like they had the list narrowed down."
Cardinals will pray for guidance at St Peter's Basilica Tuesday morning. Then, they will lock themselves inside the Sistine Chapel and hold at least one vote.
If there's no decision, cardinals on Wednesday will hold the traditional two votes in the morning and two votes in the afternoon. They could move into their conclave residence - the Casa Santa Marta in Vatican City, just a short walk from the Sistine Chapel - as soon as Monday.
The big question now is, how long will it take to elect the next pope? Coday said the mood is strikingly different from when Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI.
"What we've been told by the veterans who've been through this process before, back in 2005, is that 48 hours before the conclave opened, that there was a feeling, there was a surge toward a consensus, a momentum towards a consensus of just a few candidates," he said. "There was a strong feeling, even early on, before the Conclave opened, that it would go to Joseph Ratzinger. But what they're telling us, people who have been through this before, they're saying they're not feeling that."
The longest conclave ever was back in the 13th century, when it took three years to pick the successor for Pope Clement IV, who had died. That was due to political infighting among the cardinals. But since the early 1800s, no conclave has lasted more than four days.
Church officials and cardinals themselves want a new pontiff by Easter Sunday.