After formal resignation of Benedict XVI on February 28, conclave of Vatican cardinals will select new church leader.
Monday’s “general congregations” will set the date and make preparations for the start of the conclave, called after Benedict XVI became only the second pope in 2,000 years to resign the office of his own free will.
The meetings will help identify candidates to become leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, with the field for the next pope remaining wide open.
Possible candidates come from around the world, both from progressive and traditional wings of the church.
On Sunday, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who removed himself from the conclave process last month after sexual misconduct allegations dating back to the 1980s surfaced, admitted to sexual misconduct with priests.
“My sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal,” the Scottish cardinal said, days after resigning from his post and retiring.
Among the leading candidates for the papacy are Italian cardinal Angelo Scola, a big promoter of inter-religious dialogue, and Austria’s Christoph Schoenborn, a former student of Benedict’s with strong progressive ideas.
New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the US frontrunner, told the Reuters news agency that the growing phenomenon of people believing in God but rejecting organised churches, known among sociologists of religion as “believing without belonging,” was a major challenge for the church in future.
Argentine Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, 69, said the next pope should not be chosen according to a geographic area but must be a “saintly man” who is “best qualified” to lead the church in a time of crisis.
Sandri, who heads the Curia department for Eastern Catholic Churches, told Reuters the church must give women more leadership positions in the Vatican and beyond.
He said the Vatican expects 115 “cardinal electors” younger than 80 to attend the conclave after O’Brien opted out and an Indonesian cardinal said he was too sick to attend.
Ghana’s Peter Turkson, Guinea’s Robert Sarah and South Africa’s Wilfrid Napier, the archbishop of Duran, are seen as possibilities from Africa.
The most frequently mentioned candidate from Asia is Manila archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle, a 55-year-old theologian and pastor who is hugely popular.
Intrigue and scandals
Benedict’s eight-year pontificate was often overshadowed by Vatican intrigue and scandals in Europe and North America over sexual abuse by paedophile priests and senior prelates going back decades.
The cover-up of many of those crimes are set to be discussed at the pre-conclave meetings which are expected to last for most of the week.
Church leaders are also concerned about issues such as priestly celibacy, the treatment of homosexuals, attitudes towards divorcees, the Catholic stance on contraception and inter-religious dialogue, particularly with Islam.
Benedict’s effort to revive faith amid rising secularism is also crucial.
The church hopes to elect the new pope next week, with Benedict’s successor officially installed several days later so he can preside over the Holy Week ceremonies starting with Palm Sunday on March 24 and culminating in Easter the following Sunday.