VATICAN CITY March 11, 2013— -- On the eve of the much-anticipated conclave that will determine the next pope, cardinals gathered in Vatican City today for one last general congregation meeting.
For the past week cardinals have been holding court behind closed doors, discussing church matters as final preparations for the conclave take place. Today red drapes were placed over the balcony window overlooking St. Peter's Square, where the new pope will emerge once elected, and in the evening staff for the conclave were set to swear an oath of secrecy.
When cardinals wake up Tuesday morning, they will move into Santa Marta, the house where they will reside during the conclave, and then later celebrate a mass at St. Peter's. After lunch, they will finally begin the conclave at the Sistine Chapel, the site of the voting to determine the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church and its 1.2 billion followers. The first ballot is set to be cast in the early evening hours after the chapel has been closed to all outsiders.
Two of the front-runners to replace the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI appear to be cardinals Angelo Scola of Italy and Odilo Scherer of Brazil.
Scola, the archbishop of Milan, was viewed as a leading contender before the previous conclave in 2005 and is regarded as more of a reformer, while Scherer, the archbishop of Sao Paolo, is a hard-liner believed to have the backing of the Roman Curia.
A two-thirds majority of the 115 cardinal electors -- 77 votes -- is needed to become the next pontiff. If none of the cardinals secures enough support in Tuesday's vote, they will return to Santa Marta for the night before resuming the conclave on Wednesday.
"In a few days we will have a new Holy Father," Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Austria said Sunday during a mass conducted at his titular church in Rome, according to Italian news agency Ansa. Cardinals spent the day fanned out across Rome celebrating mass at the churches in the Eternal City that are permanently assigned to them.
Despite a tumultuous period for the church, with lingering sexual abuse scandals, the "Vatileaks" controversy over leaked papal documents, and Benedict's shocking resignation, Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna, touted the camaraderie within the college of cardinals.
"I found a rarely felt spirit of fraternity this week in the meetings between the cardinals," he said, according to Ansa.
With the cardinals set to make what may be the most important decision of their lives in the coming days, that fraternity may soon be put to the test.