VATICAN CITY — Cardinals have set Tuesday as the start date for the conclave to elect the next pope, a milestone in this unusual papal transition and an indication that even without an obvious front-runner, the cardinals have a fairly good idea of who best among them can lead the Catholic Church and tackle its many problems.
The conclave date was set on Friday afternoon during a vote by the College of Cardinals who have been meeting all week to discuss the church's problems and priorities and the qualities a new pope must possess.
Tuesday will begin with a morning Mass in St. Peter's Basilica, followed by a solemn procession into the Sistine Chapel and the first round of secret balloting in the afternoon.
Only one vote is held the first afternoon. If black smoke is sent snaking out of the chapel chimney to indicate there is no immediate victor, the cardinals will retire for the day. They will return Wednesday for two rounds of balloting in the morning, two rounds in the afternoon until a pope has been chosen.
In the past 100 years, no conclave has lasted longer than five days.
That said, there doesn't appear to be a front-runner in this election for a successor to the retired Benedict XVI, and the past week of deliberations has exposed sharp divisions among cardinals about some of the pressing problems facing the church, including of governance within the Holy See itself.
U.S. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, considered a papal contender, said in a blog post Friday that most of the discussions in the closed-door meetings covered preaching and teaching the Catholic faith, tending to Catholic schools and hospitals, protecting families and the unborn, supporting priests "and getting more of them!"
"Those are the 'big issues,'" he wrote. "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!"
Early in the week, the Americans had been pressing for more time to get to the bottom of the level of dysfunction and corruption in the Holy See's governance that was exposed by the leaks of papal documents last year. But by Thursday afternoon, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles tweeted that the discussions were "reaching a conclusion" and that a mood of "excitement" was taking hold.
Vatican-based cardinals had been angling for a speedy end to the discussions, perhaps to limit the amount of dirty laundry being aired.
A Tuesday start date could be read as something of a compromise. Monday had been seen as an obvious choice to start the conclave to ensure a pope would be elected and installed by Sunday, March 17, the last Sunday before Holy Week begins.
American and some German cardinals had argued that the time for discernment should come during the pre-conclave meetings, when there is more time for discussion and information-gathering.
Once the conclave begins, there is actually very little time for discussion since the proceedings are conducted in an atmosphere of silent prayer. The Americans had argued for more consultation time so the conclave itself doesn't drag on.