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VATICAN CITY: Cardinals from around the world were summoned yesterday to meetings that will set a date for a conclave to elect a new pope, the day after Benedict XVI’s historic resignation — a first for the Catholic Church in more than 700 years.
The dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano, sent out formal invitations by fax and email to the “pre-conclave general congregations” starting on Monday at 9.30am.
Only once all the cardinals have arrived from the four corners of the world — from Argentina to Vietnam — will they set a date for the secret conclave to elect the next leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
Only those under 80 are eligible to vote, and 115 are expected to kick off the conclave to be held in the hallowed Sistine Chapel with its Michelangelo frescoes in the first half of March.
Among Benedict’s last actions as pope was to authorise the cardinals to move the date forward from the traditional 15 to 20 days following his departure, since they are not mourning a dead pope.
Also yesterday, marking the start of the “Sede Vacante” or Vacant See, the period between popes, the Vatican post office issued a special set of stamps for use until the next pope is elected.
Benedict’s eight-year papacy came to an end at 1900 GMT on Thursday with visually potent symbolism when the great wooden doors of the Castel Gandolfo papal residence near Rome — where he will spend the first two months of retirement — swung shut to cries of “Long live the pope!”
Seals were applied to the doors of the papal apartments in the Vatican and to the lift leading up to them — to be broken only by a new pope.
Benedict XVI began his new life by watching the news about his own resignation on television, pacing the rooms of his palace and getting a good night’s sleep, the Vatican said yesterday. “He really appreciated the coverage,” spokesman Federico Lombardi said, adding: “A pope can also appreciate good media work in his heart”.
Afterwards, the pope emeritus walked up and down a long reception room in Castel Gandolfo, the Hall of the Swiss, overlooking Albano Lake.
Lombardi said the pope had brought a few weighty tomes with him including one titled Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theological Aesthetics: A Model for Post-Critical Biblical Interpretation.
He also said Benedict — an accomplished pianist — had been heard playing the piano more frequently in the run-up to the resignation. “The pope slept really well,” Lombardi said, still referring to Benedict by his former title.
The rumour mill over who could succeed Benedict has been under way ever since he made his announcement on February 11 but no clear favourite has yet emerged.