Cardinals pray before conclave to choose new pope
By Philip Pullella and Crispian Balmer
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Roman Catholic Cardinals prayed on Sunday for spiritual guidance ahead of a closed-door conclave to choose a new pope to lead the Church at one of the most difficult periods in its history.
Cardinals will hold a final pre-conclave meeting on Monday to discuss the state of their Church, left reeling by the abdication last month of Pope Benedict and struggling to deal with a string of sexual abuse and corruption scandals.
The 115 cardinals who will take part in the secret ballots, which start on March 12, fanned out around Rome on Sunday to hold myriad Masses, either in the quiet of private chapels or in the grandeur of Rome's great cathedrals and basilicas.
Each cardinal is traditionally assigned to a church in the Italian capital and congregations swelled in parishes visited by those considered the most likely papal contenders -- such as Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer of Sao Paulo, Brazil.
"We're all preparing for the conclave because we need to make the right decision to decide who is going to be the new pope," Scherer told a small Baroque church in the heart of Rome, crammed with well-wishers.
He was later driven away in a minivan with darkened windows, declining to speak to the waiting hoards of reporters -- a taste of the pressures to come if he should become the first non-European to be elected pope in some 1,300 years.
Just up the road, another non-European touted as a possible candidate, U.S. Cardinal Sean O'Malley, also received star treatment as he arrived for Mass in ornate vestments.
"I say sincerely that we hope this is your last visit as cardinal," said parish priest father Rocco Visca, prompting loud applause and cheers from the well-heeled congregation. Continued...