Vatican City: Cardinals from around the world were summoned Friday to meetings that will set a date for a conclave to elect a new pope, the day after Benedict XVI’s historic resignation — a first for the Catholic Church in more than 700 years.
The dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano, sent out formal invitations by fax and email to the “pre-conclave general congregations” starting on Monday at 9:30 am (0830 GMT).
Only once all the cardinals have arrived from the four corners of the world — from Argentina to Vietnam — will they set a date for the secret conclave to elect the next leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, the invitation states.
Only those under 80 are eligible to vote, and 115 are expected to kick off the conclave to be held in the hallowed Sistine Chapel with its Michelangelo frescoes in the first half of March.
Among Benedict’s last actions as pope was to authorise the cardinals to move the date forward from the traditional 15 to 20 days following his departure, since they are not mourning a dead pope.
Also Friday, marking the start of the “Sede Vacante” or Vacant See, the period between popes, the Vatican post office issued a special set of stamps for use until the next pope is elected.
Benedict’s eight-year papacy came to an end at 1900 GMT on Thursday with visually potent symbolism when the great wooden doors of the Castel Gandolfo papal residence near Rome — where he will spend the first two months of retirement — swung shut to cries of “Long live the pope!”
Seals were applied to the doors of the papal apartments in the Vatican and to the lift leading up to them — to be broken only by a new pope.
Benedict XVI began his new life by watching the news about his own resignation on television, pacing the rooms of his palace and getting a good night’s sleep, the Vatican said on Friday.
“He really appreciated the coverage,” spokesman Federico Lombardi said, adding: “A pope can also appreciate good media work in his heart”.
Afterwards, the pope emeritus walked up and down a long reception room in Castel Gandolfo, the Hall of the Swiss, overlooking Albano Lake.
Lombardi said the pope had brought a few weighty tomes with him including one titled “Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theological Aesthetics: A Model for Post-Critical Biblical Interpretation”.
He also said Benedict — an accomplished pianist — had been heard playing the piano more frequently in the run-up to the resignation.
“The pope slept really well,” Lombardi said, still referring to Benedict by his former title.
The rumour mill over who could succeed Benedict has been under way ever since he made his announcement on February 11 but no clear favourite has yet emerged.
The cardinals’ preliminary meetings next week may help narrow down the field of “papabili” — potential popes — ahead of the conclave.
Already the profile of the ideal next pontiff is coming into focus: that of a charismatic but tenacious man with good communication skills, capable of re-uniting a fractious Church, stamping down on scandals and re-igniting faith among the young.
But no single cardinal seems to fit the description, and analysts say the fault lines among the cardinals divide conservatives and moderates, Vatican insiders and the dioceses, traditionalists and reformers.
Among the front-runners are Milan Archbishop Angelo Scola, 72, and Marc Ouellet, the 67-year-old former archbishop of Quebec who heads the influential Congregation of Bishops.
The next pope’s desk will be laden with tough dossiers, from Catholic reformers calling for women clergy and an end to priestly celibacy, to growing secularism in the West and ongoing scandals over sexual abuses by paedophile priests going back decades.
The former pope Benedict will now be known as “Roman pontiff emeritus” or “pope emeritus” — a completely new title created especially for this new situation.
He can still be addressed as “Your Holiness Benedict XVI”.
Benedict is only the second pope to resign voluntarily in the Church’s 2,000-year history, and in his final hours as pontiff he took the highly unusual step of pledging allegiance to his successor.
“Let the Lord reveal the one he has chosen,” he added.
In the spring the pope emeritus will take up permanent residence in an ex-convent on a hilltop in the Vatican grounds overlooking Rome.
Then the Church will be in the unprecedented situation of having a pope and his predecessor living within a stone’s throw of each other.