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VATICAN CITY - Cardinals held final discussions on the troubled state of the Roman Catholic Church on Monday, the day before they seclude themselves from the world to elect a new pontiff, with no clear frontrunner in view.
Stunned by the abdication last month of Pope Benedict, the red-hatted cardinals have met repeatedly this past week, sketching out the qualities of the man they need to lead a Church plagued by scandals of sex abuse and mismanagement.
“Last time around there was a man of stature, three or four times that of any other cardinal,” French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin told reporters, in a reference to Germany's Joseph Ratzinger, who was elected pope within 24 hours in 2005.
“That is not the case this time around. Therefore, the choice has to be made among one, two, three, four ... a dozen candidates. We still don't really know anything. We will have to wait for the results of the first ballot.”
Vatican-watchers say Italy's Angelo Scola and Brazil's Odilo Scherer are in pole position. A vote for 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.
However, a host of other candidates from numerous nations have also been mentioned, all of them theological conservatives, leaving the secretive contest wide open.
The 115 cardinal-electors from 48 countries will start filing into the Michelangelo-frescoed Sistine Chapel at 4:30 p.m. (1530 GMT) on Tuesday and will hold an initial vote shortly afterwards.
“There is a dynamic that takes over once they're in the Sistine Chapel. The first vote kind of lays out the names. We will have a pope by the end of the week,” said Father Tom Rosica, the Vatican spokesman for the English-speaking media.
No one in the modern era has won the necessary two-thirds majority on the first ballot, and the cardinal-electors will hold up to four ballots a day thereafter - two in the morning and two in the afternoon - until they elect a new pontiff.
The average length of the last nine conclaves was roughly three days and none went on for more than five days.
In preparation for the election, workers hung up crimson curtains on the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica, ready for the moment when the new pontiff makes his first appearance before crowds gathered in the vast cobbled piazza below.
The 266th pope will face an array of problems - from sexual abuse scandals to the dysfunctional bureaucracy, known as the Curia, and accusations of wrong-doing at the Vatican bank.
The Vatican's top administrator, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, made a long-awaited presentation to fellow prelates on Monday, outlining efforts to improve transparency at the bank.
Both Benedict and his predecessor John Paul were criticised for failing to reform the Curia and some churchmen believe the next pope needs to be first and foremost a strong manager.
Vatican insiders say Scola, who has managed two big Italian dioceses, might be best placed to understand the Byzantine politics of the Vatican administration - of which he is not a part - and therefore be able to introduce swift reform.
The Curia faction is said by the same insiders to back Scherer who worked in the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops for seven years before later leading Brazil's Sao Paolo diocese.
His elevation would represent a sea change for the European-dominated Church and recognition of the growing power of Latin America, which is home to 42 percent of the world's Catholics.
If neither man can draw the necessary support, a compromise candidate would have to come to the fore, with Canada's Marc Ouellet, U.S. cardinals Sean O'Malley and Timothy Dolan and Argentina's Leonardo Sandri often cited.
The conclave itself is held in great secrecy, with cardinals taking a vow never to reveal the details of their ballot.
Vatican staff who might come into contact with the so-called princes of the church, including lift operators, caterers and cleaners, are due to take a vow on Monday not to reveal anything they might hear in the coming days.
The cardinals will stay in a simple Vatican hotel during the conclave, crossing over to the Sistine Chapel for the twice-daily voting sessions.
Smoke signals from above the chapel - black for an indecisive vote, white for a new pope - will tell the outside world how the ballot is proceeding. - Reuters