VATICAN CITY Roman Catholic cardinals will enter a conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict on March 12, the Vatican said on Friday, with no clear favourite emerging so far to take charge of the troubled Church.
Benedict's surprise abdication last month has brought most of the world's cardinals to the Vatican for discussions on the problems facing the 1.2 billion-member Church, and to decide on the profile of the man they want to lead them.
After five days of closed-door debate, the red-capped prelates decided on Friday to begin their secret votes in the frescoed Sistine Chapel on the afternoon of next Tuesday following a Mass in St Peter's Basilica in the morning.
A total of 115 elector-cardinals, all aged under 80, are set to take part in a series of ballots which continue until one man receives a two-thirds majority, or 77 votes.
The last six popes have all been elected within four days, with Benedict becoming pontiff in 2005 in barely 24 hours.
The cardinals have made clear they want another quick decision this time to make sure they can all return to their dioceses in time to lead Easter celebrations - the most important event in the Roman Catholic calendar.
"It's been 10 days since I left the archdiocese, and as the old song goes, 'I wanna go home!'" U.S. Cardinal Timothy Dolan said in a blog on Friday.
The names of several possible frontrunners have been mentioned by church officials ever since Benedict's announcement on February 11 that he was quitting the papacy for health reasons after a rocky, eight-year reign.
Amongst the most mentioned are Italy's Angelo Scola, Brazil's Odilo Pedro Scherer and Canada's Marc Ouellet.
Italians dominated the papacy for 455 years before the election of the Polish-born John Paul, Benedict's predecessor, in 1978. With the vast majority of Catholics now living outside Europe, there is growing pressure for a pontiff from another part of the world.
Whoever takes over will face a daunting challenge, with the Church struggling in the face of sex abuse scandals, rivalry and strife inside the Vatican, a growing shortage of priests and a rise of secularism in its European strongholds.
All the men entering the Sistine Chapel next week were appointed by either Pope John Paul or Benedict -- both conservative theologians who fiercely defended traditional Church teachings on moral issues.
It is therefore highly likely that another conservative will emerge from the ranks.
Vatican watchers say it is vital that the next pope is able to engage confidently with the public in a way that the shy Benedict struggled to do.
"I think the thing we really need is somebody who can communicate the gospel in a way that is understandable and attractive to people in the 21st century," said Rev. Thomas Reese, Jesuit scholar and author of "Inside the Vatican".
"The other thing that I think the cardinals are looking for is someone who can reform or reorganise the Vatican Curia (bureaucracy)," he added.
Concern about the Italian-dominated Curia was aired during this week's discussions, according to various leaks, with some cardinals demanding details of a dossier prepared for Benedict about the dysfunctional administration. He put the report aside for his successor to tackle and has not released the findings.
Cardinals were in the past locked into areas around the Sistine Chapel when they entered the conclave and not allowed out until they had chosen a new pontiff.
But the rules changed before the 2005 ballot and the prelates now get to reside in a comfortable Vatican hotel while they are not voting in the chapel itself.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said on Friday the cardinal electors would draw lots to see which rooms they would sleep in, with all external contact, including emails and telephone calls, forbidden.
Jamming devices will also be installed around the Sistine Chapel and the hotel to stop outsiders eavesdropping and to prevent mobile phone usage in the area.
One senior churchman is believed to have let slip to friends in Germany that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had been elected pope in 2005 before the crowds waiting in the nearby St. Peter's Square were informed.
(Additional reporting by Philip Pullella and Tom Heneghan; Editing by Barry Moody)