March 7, 2013— -- The last cardinal eligible to vote for a new pope arrived in Rome today, allowing the leaders of the Catholic Church to begin the conclave to choose a successor to Pope Benedict, who stepped down a week ago.
But the arrival of Vietnam's Cardinal Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man, however, does not make it likely that the conclave could begin immediately. Some observers had believed the conclave could start as soon as Sunday March 10, a possibility that by the day grows less and less likely.
The timing is tricky for a variety of reasons. The world's 1.2 billion Catholics are waiting to see who will occupy the papal seat, and the beginning Holy Week beginning March 24 gives the conclave some urgency.
"We'd like to be done before Holy Week starts and go back to our dioceses," Cardinal Francis George, the Archbishop of Chicago, said at a press conference Monday in Rome.
Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles tweeted that the discussions were "reaching a conclusion."
"Setting of date for conclave nearing. Mood of excitement prevails among Cardinals," he wrote.
At the same time, the opportunity to elect a new pope does not come around very often, making the choice the cardinals will make in the upcoming days something that cannot be rushed. Were it not for a last-minute rule change by Benedict, the conclave would have started on March 15.
The next pope will have to contend with the effects of the sex scandal that has roiled the church, epitomized by the resignation of Scotland's cardinal, and the report into the Vatileaks scandal that will be given only to the next pope.
"I think we're just feeling our way right now in trying to determine what's the best way to proceed," said Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington. "Remember, there are many of us in this conclave who were not in the last one, so this is uncharted waters for many of us."
In the meantime, work is underway to prepare the Sistine Chapel for the conclave: installing electronic jamming devices and setting up the stove that will emit white smoke once the new pope is chosen. The cardinals have gone silent in public, instead spending their time in closed-door deliberations.
Ahead of the conclave the favorite to become the next pope appears to be Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer of Brazil. However, there has never been a pope from outside Europe. Other top contenders are Cardinals Angelo Scola and Angelo Bagnasco of Italy, Peter Erdo of Hungary, Christoph Schoenborn of Austria, Marc Ouellet of Canada, Leonardo Sandri of Argentina, and Timothy Dolan of the United States.
When the cardinals do gather in the Sistine Chapel, they will cast anonymous ballots - with a maximum of four cast in a single day - until one cardinal has earned a two-thirds majority. After each vote, the ballots are burned and black smoke is emitted from the chimney. White smoke signals a new pope has been picked.
In 2005, cardinals selected Benedict the day after the conclave had started. A week after his resignation, the wait continues to see who his successor will be.