The Vatican announced Friday that the Catholic church's College of Cardinals will begin the closed-door papal conclave meetings to elect the new pope on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 12.
All cardinals under 80 years old are eligible to vote for the successor to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who retired on February 28. That leaves 115 cardinals who will vote at the Sistine Chapel up to four times a day until two-thirds (77 cardinals) agree on who the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church should be.
The conclave to elect Benedict in 2005 lasted only two days, which signaled that cardinals generally agreed on the election, but conclaves can potentially last much longer if there's no consensus.
"The eighth General Congregation of the College of Cardinals has decided that the Conclave will begin on Tuesday, 12 March 2013," said a statement sent by the Vatican press office. "A pro eligendo Romano Pontifice Mass will be celebrated in St. Peter's Basilica in the morning. In the afternoon the cardinals will enter into the Conclave."
Typically, conclaves are supposed to happen at least 15 days and no more than 20 days after a pope dies or leaves office, but Benedict changed the rules in the last days of his papacy to allow an earlier start. Cardinals have met eight times in General Congregations since Monday to discuss priorities for the church and pick a conclave date, but were delayed in deciding on a date because a handful of cardinals had not arrived at the Vatican until the last three days. Before Tuesday's conclave, cardinals are expected to keep meeting in General Congregations on Saturday and Monday.
When not in the conclave in the Sistine Chapel, cardinals will stay closely guarded in the Domus Sanctae Marthae (Casa Santa Marta), a Vatican residence. They are banned from contact outside the conclave, including the use of cell phones, social media and the Internet.
After each set of votes, ballots are burned and colored smoke rises from the Sistine Chapel twice daily, with black smoke meaning cardinals have failed to agree on the new pope and white smoke indicating that they've picked their new leader. On all days of voting except the first afternoon, there will be two votes twice per day (two in the morning, two in the afternoon). In the unlikely case that cardinals cannot agree on a pope after three full days, the voting will pause for a day of reflection.
There are a handful of cardinals who are rumored to be in running to be pope, though no clear front-runner has emerged. As HuffPost Italy reported on Friday, two cardinals that have been the focus of the Italian press this week are Brazilian-born Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer and the Archbishop of Milan, Angelo Scola. Two Americans, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley, are also considered long-shot candidates.
Many cardinals whose names have been floated as possible papal candidates -- as well as a significant portion of the cardinals who will vote in the conclave -- are from Europe.
While there are nearly 5,000 journalists accredited to cover the papal election, media reports about on-the-ground discussions at the Vatican have become increasingly speculative since the General Congregation banned interviews with cardinals on Wednesday after leaks about confidential meetings were reported in the Italian press.
At the same time, some cardinals have continued speaking via blogs and Twitter, while others have given information on proceedings to the press on background.
Dolan has continued his satellite radio show on SiriusXM and blogged about the General Congregations, which he said covered issues including preaching Catholicism, the church's teachings against abortion and increasing the number priests.
"Those are the `big issues.' 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!"
Aside from Friday's announcement on the conclave, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Fredrico Lombardi said that cardinals had also formally agreed to exempt two eligible cardinals from the conclave who had recently announced that they would not join in the voting process. Cardinal Julius Darmaatjadja, emeritus archbishop of Jakarta, bowed out because of bad health and declining eyesight, while Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien said he would not attend after resigning last week and saying he had been part of inappropriate sexual conduct with priests.
Lombardi also showed a video to reporters on Friday of the room where the newly elected pope will sleep on his first night, which has a study, a sitting area and a carving of Jesus Christ's face on the headboard of the bed. Lombardi said the new pope will stay there for handful of weeks while the official papal apartment, where Benedict lived before resigning, is renovated. The apartment was sealed after the resignation and church rules say it can't be reopened for any reason until there is a new pope.