The Conclave of Cardinals, the highly secretive election of the new Pope, is set to begin on Tuesday, March 12, in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican officials announced on Friday.
Only those cardinals under the age of 80 at the time of Pope Benedict XVI's official resignation will be eligible to vote for the 266th Pope of the Roman Catholic church.
Overall, 115 red-hatted "Princes of the Church" will enter the Sistine Chapel next Tuesday afternoon after celebrating a "pro eligendo Romano Pontifice" pre-conclave Mass in St. Peter's Basilica in the morning.
Once in the chapel, they will swear under Michelangelo's frescoes not to reveal details of the conclave. They will be barred from contact with the outside world until the new pontiff is elected.
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In the unlikely event that a cardinal disobeys the vowing on secrecy, he will be excommunicated, according to one of the last edicts signed by Pope Benedict before his abrupt resignation.
Smoke - black for no result and white to announce that a pope has been chosen - is likely to come out of the Vatican chimney on Tuesday evening.
Up to four ballots are held each day. If no candidate receives the required two-thirds of the votes by the third day, a one-day break for prayer is required.
According to the daily La Repubblica, Cardinal Angelo Scola, the 71-year-old archbishop of Milan, Italy, has already gained the support of some 40 cardinals, being more than half way to reach the 77 needed for the required two-thirds majority in the conclave.
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It's not the first time that the Italian cardinal appears as a papal candidate. A top-secret, leaked Vatican document, published last year by the Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano, revealed that Benedict XVI was secretly working on his succession, having chosen Scola as the next Pope.
Seen as an outsider by the Roman Curia, the administration assisting the Pope, Scola is supported by a group of cardinals referred as "riformisti" or reformers, which include Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn and US Cardinals Timothy Dolan and Sean O'Malley.
Both American cardinals are considered papabili, strong candidates for the papal throne.
"What began in the Italian press a few weeks ago as almost playful entertainment of the idea of an ‘American pope' has now taken on a more serious tone," John Thavis, the former bureau chief for Catholic News Service, wrote on his blog.
The more conservative wing of the church - the so called "Roman Party" led by Angelo Sodano, Dean of the College of Cardinals and the chamberlain Tarcisio Bertone - might cluster around Cardinal Odilo Scherer of Brazil, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of Argentina or Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo, Sri Lanka.
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But Vatican analysts warn that if the conservative and reformer groups block each other, with none of the suggested candidates quickly reaching the necessary two-thirds majority, a surprise candidate could then emerge.
Indeed, predictions could be turned on their heads, as happened on Oct. 16, 1978, when the name of Karol Wojtyla was announced to the crowd in St. Peter's Square.
The future John Paul II was so little known that many thought from his surname that he must have been an African.
Meanwhile, bookmakers are also taking bets on the name the new pope will pick.
Peter tops the list, although no pontiff has ever taken the name Peter II in sign of respect for the first Pope. Peter is followed by Pius and John Paul - another risky choice for the comparison with John Paul "the Great."
Image: The Sistine Chapel, where the new Pope will be elected. Credit: Antoine Taveneaux/Wikimedia Commons.