Faithfuls prays on their knees at St Peter's square ahead of a conclave on March 12, 2013 at the Vatican.

Vatican City - Catholics young and old braved the rain and hail in St Peter's Square on Tuesday to support cardinals entering a secret conclave to choose a new pope after Benedict XVI's surprise resignation.

“Without a pope I feel bereft, like an orphan. I pray to give the cardinals the strength to choose the right man to lead the Church,” French priest Guillaume Le Floch said as a crack of thunder resounded around the square.

“It cannot be an easy decision, but the Church needs a great leader now more than ever. The cardinals have a chance to astonish us,” the 35-year-old said.

Hundreds of clergy and pilgrims had queued around the square to get into St Peter's Basilica for a special last mass with the 115 cardinal electors, before they retire to the Sistine Chapel and begin voting to elect Benedict's successor.

While tourists ran for cover from the hailstones, those gathered to watch the mass on big screens in the square broke into applause when the 85-year-old “pope emeritus”, who resigned because he said his strength was failing him, was evoked.

“Benedict was a good pope, but I pray the next one has the charisma to bond with the people, because that will also give him courage,” said sister Caterina, a 53-year-old nun from Croatia, as she clutched the cross around her neck.

A man dressed in a dirty sackcloth habit knelt barefoot in prayer in front of the basilica as the rain fell, and was joined on the cobblestones by another kneeling pilgrim who bowed his head as the hymn echoed around the square.

Around Rome, Catholics were taking part in fervent prayer around the clock to inspire the electors.

“We'll be praying for the cardinals until a decision is made, it's the part we play in the conclave,” said sister Celestina, 62, a nun from Croatia.

“The Church is like a boat, all the faithful are sailing in it together but we're without a helmsman at the moment,” she said.

A stone's throw from the Vatican, young Catholics from all over the world were holding 24-hour vigils. Many agreed that the cardinals were unlikely to elect a new leader on the first vote, because there is no clear candidate.

“We are holding non-stop prayers here, day and night, asking people to come and support the cardinals with their prayers,” said Fabien Lambert, chaplain of the 12th-century Saint Lawrence church and international youth centre in Rome.

Roger Seogo, a priest from Burkino Faso in west Africa, said there had been a lot of talk about whether the new pope could come from Africa or Asia in a break from tradition. But for him, nationality or culture was irrelevant.

“We need someone able to provide the Church with what it needs in today's world, someone who will help it open up to the world and listen to the people, really hear the concerns of the faithful,” the cheerful 41-year-old said.

Pre-conclave talks among cardinals gathered in Rome after Benedict's resignation appeared to focus on the problems afflicting the Curia - the Vatican's unruly governing body - and its distance from the grassroots.

Some electors also called for the Vatican to show them a secret report carried out into the leaks scandal which hit the Catholic Church last year, containing allegations of intrigue and infighting within the Holy See.

“It's a dangerous period. The Church is much more divided now than it has ever been, and it is with trepidation and concern that we wait for the decision as to who is chosen,” said Nicholas Gruner, a 70-year-old priest from Montreal.

“If they don't choose the right pope, it could make the situation a lot worse. We may not deserve a good pope as sinners, but we certainly need one.”

Gruner said he was disappointed the Vatican had not made the so-called “Vatileaks” report available to the cardinals: “There is corruption in the Vatican which needs to be fixed, and they need all the information available.”

Saverio, a white-haired 71-year-old Italian architect who took time off work to come to St Peter's Square, said the Church had lost touch with the simple pilgrims.

“The Church's biggest problem is its estrangement from the real world. Priests don't care about others any more, nuns live in their own world,” he said. - AFP