Cardinals head to conclave, Church beset by woes

Mon Mar 11, 2013 7:07pm EDT
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By Crispian Balmer

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Roman Catholic cardinals gather under the gaze of Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" on Tuesday to elect a new pope to tackle the daunting problems facing the 1.2-billion-member Church.

The secret conclave, steeped in ritual and prayer, could carry on for several days, with no clear favorite in sight to take over the reins from Pope Benedict, who abdicated last month saying he was not strong enough to confront the Church's woes.

In a process dating back to medieval times, 115 "Princes of the Church" from 48 countries will shut themselves in the Vatican's frescoed Sistine Chapel on Tuesday afternoon after a public Mass in St. Peter's Basilica in the morning.

They will emerge from their seclusion only when they have chosen the 266th pontiff in the 2,000-year-history of the Church, which is beset by sex abuse scandals, bureaucratic infighting, financial difficulties and the rise of secularism.

"We are ready to enter the conclave and it will be longer than the last one," South African Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier told reporters on Monday, referring to the 2005 election of Benedict, that was wrapped up in 24 hours after four ballots.

"It will last a few days. Maybe four or five," he predicted.

The average length of the last nine conclaves was just over three days and none went on for more than five days.

Vatican-insiders say Italy's Angelo Scola and Brazil's Odilo Scherer have emerged as the men to beat. The former would bring the papacy back to Italy for the first time in 35 years, while the latter would be the first non-European pope in 1,300 years.   Continued...

Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican is silhouetted during sunset in Rome, March 11, 2013. Roman Catholic Cardinals will begin their conclave inside the Vatican's Sistine Chapel Tuesday to elect a new pope. REUTERS/Paul Hanna