4 Mar 2013

Cardinals start talks on new pope

10:35 pm on 4 March 2013

Catholic cardinals are beginning talks ahead of a conclave to elect the next pope, following Pope Benedict's historic resignation.

Benedict XVI, who has the new title "pope emeritus", announced his resignation in February, saying at 85 he no longer had the mental and physical strength to cope with the demands of his ministry.

The German-born pontiff led the Church for nearly eight years and is the first pope to abdicate since Gregory XII in 1415.

The cardinals will gather without a British cardinal who has admitted to sexual misconduct with priests. Scotland's Keith O'Brien recused himself in February after allegations dating back to the 1980s surfaced, AFP reports.

The Vatican meetings, known as "general congregations", will set the date for the start of the conclave and help identify candidates to be leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.

The Vatican is now expecting 115 "cardinal electors" to attend the conclave.

The field for next pope remains wide open, with possible candidates from every corner of the world and from progressive and traditionalist wings of the Church.

The pre-conclave meetings, which are expected to last for most of the week, are also a way to identify what the priorities for the next pope should be.

Benedict's eight-year pontificate was often overshadowed by Vatican intrigue and scandals in Europe and North America over sexual abuse by pedophile priests going back decades and the cover-up of those crimes by senior prelates.

Church leaders are also concerned about issues such as priestly celibacy, treatment of gays, attitudes towards divorcees, the Catholic stance on contraception as well as inter-religious dialogue, particularly with Islam.

Benedict's effort to revive faith amid rising secularism is also crucial.

No date has yet been set for the election of the Church's 266th pope, although Italian media have mentioned next 11 March as a possibility.

The dean of the college of cardinals, Angelo Sodano, has stressed that the start date will not be set until all the "cardinal electors" are in Rome.

The profile of an ideal candidate for pope is beginning to come into focus as cardinals have their say - many would prefer a relatively youthful, pastoral figure who can help foster spiritual renewal, particularly among young people.