His predecessor Benedict XVI resigned abruptly last month, ending an eight-year reign that was often overshadowed by infighting and calls for greater openness from within the Church.
Here is a list of key issues on the agenda:
— SEX ABUSE: After sordid revelations of child abuse by priests erupted in Europe and the United States, Benedict apologised for the Church’s role in turning a blind eye and protecting abusers, but campaigners say not enough has been done to bring suspects before the law or to punish the senior prelates who covered up the abuse for decades.
— VATICAN FINANCES: Plagued by a dark history of murky financial dealings, the Vatican has promised to step up efforts against money laundering and wants to be on a White List of countries that comply with international rules. The head of the bank was unceremoniously sacked in May last year under a cloud of intrigue and his successor was only named last month.
— HOMOSEXUALITY AND GAY MARRIAGE: This is one of the Vatican’s most critical issues. While condemning violence against homosexuals, Benedict had refused to be shaken on the Church’s teachings on the traditional family of father, mother and child, and intervened directly in recent heated debates in France and Britain on same-sex marriage. In December, Benedict said mankind was at stake, insisting that same-sex unions called into question what it means to be “true men”.
— CURIA, SECRETS AND INTRIGUE: Absorbed by his studies, the academic Benedict had failed to put his stamp on the Curia, the Church’s secretive and powerful governing body. Dominated by Italian clerics, the Curia is key to a papacy because it can intervene in unfavoured papal decisions and uphold the status quo. Benedict was hit hard by the “Vatileaks scandal” last year, where memos leaked by his butler revealed infighting. The next pope will have to try to get a grip on the Curia.
— ORDINATION OF WOMEN AND PRIEST CELIBACY: Calls from self-proclaimed disobedient priests and campaigners to end priestly celibacy, and accept women into the clergy to fill positions left empty as priest numbers dwindle, were denounced by Benedict last year as self-serving. He insisted the Church does not have God’s authority to ordain women and said celibacy was central to the priesthood — but amid increasing calls for clergy to be allowed to marry and claims that celibacy may have contributed to sex abuse scandals, the future pope may have to re-think the issue.
— ABORTION AND EUTHANASIA: Benedict had insisted on the Vatican’s “duty” to defend “basic human values” by rejecting abortion or euthanasia, describing attempts to “select people and exclude others from humanity” as utterly immoral. In 2010 he appointed to a top Vatican job Canadian cardinal Marc Ouellet, who has said that abortion is a “moral crime” even in rape cases. But Church thinking on the issues is evolving and a new pope will have to clarify its stance.