VATICAN CITY -- The preliminaries over, Catholic cardinals are ready to get down to the business of choosing a pope. And even without a front-runner, there are indications they will go into the conclave Tuesday with a good idea of their top picks.
Then it will be a matter of agreeing on one man to lead the church and tackle its many problems.
The conclave date was set Friday during a vote by the College of Cardinals, which met all week to discuss the church's problems and priorities, and the qualities the successor to Pope Benedict XVI must possess.
The past week of deliberations has exposed sharp divisions among cardinals about some of the pressing problems facing the church, including governance within the Holy See itself.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the pre-conclave meetings had given the cardinals a chance to discuss the "profile, characteristics, qualities and talents" a future pope must have.
Those closed-door deliberations, he said, provided an opportunity for discussion and information-gathering so the cardinals could go into the conclave ready to cast their ballots. "The preparation is absolutely fundamental," Lombardi said.
Cardinal Sean O'Malley, archbishop of Boston, agreed, noting that without this week's meetings the conclave "could drag on."
"The preference is to have enough discussions previous so that when people go to the conclave, they already have a particular idea of who they're going to vote for," he said this week.
Then it's a matter of consensus-building in order to reach the two-thirds majority needed to elect a pope -- a process that for the past century has taken no more than a few days.
Benedict himself was elected on the fourth round of voting in 2005, a day after the conclave began -- one of the fastest papal elections in recent times. His predecessor, John Paul II, was chosen following eight ballots over three days in 1978.
In the past 100 years, no conclave has lasted longer than five days.
On Tuesday, the conclave will begin with a morning mass in St. Peter's Basilica, followed by a procession into the Sistine Chapel and the first round of secret balloting in the afternoon.
If black smoke is sent out of the chapel chimney to indicate there is no victor, the cardinals will retire for the day. They return Wednesday for two rounds of balloting in the morning and two rounds in the afternoon, a process repeated each day, with occasional breaks for reflection, until a pope is chosen.
U.S. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, considered a papal contender, said in a blog post Friday this week's preliminary discussions covered preaching and teaching the Catholic faith, tending to Catholic schools and hospitals, protecting families and the unborn, supporting priests "and getting more of them!"
"Those are the big issues," he wrote. "You may find that hard to believe, since the word on the street is that all we talk about is corruption in the Vatican, sexual abuse, money. Do these topics come up? Yes. Do they dominate? No."
A Tuesday conclave start date could be read as something of a compromise. Monday had been seen as an obvious choice, to ensure a pope would be elected and installed well ahead of the busy Holy Week that precedes Easter, beginning with Palm Sunday on March 24.
According to Vatican analysts, the list of papabili, or those considered to have the stuff to be pope, remains relatively unchanged since the 85-year-old Benedict first announced he would resign on Feb. 28.
Also Friday, the cardinals formally agreed to exempt two of their voting-age colleagues from the conclave: Cardinal Julius Darmaatjadja of Jakarta, who is ill, and Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien, who resigned last week after admitting to inappropriate sexual misconduct.
That brings the number of cardinal electors to 115, two-thirds of whom -- or 77 -- must vote for the victor.
-- The Associated Press