By Eric J. Lyman, Special for USA TODAY
ROME - The Vatican is moving quickly to start the process of selecting the next pope, announcing Friday that the official invitation had gone out to the 115 eligible cardinals who will take part in selecting the next pope.
The Vatican said that "congregations" leading up to the actual conclave will start Monday.
The short announcement from the Vatican press office Friday said that cardinals would join the congregations as they arrived in Rome and that once the full contingent of cardinals arrived they would decide together on the start date for the conclave.
Benedict XVI, now known as pontiff emeritus, sent shockwaves around the world when he announced Feb. 11 he would resign, effective Thursday at 8 p.m. local time. Friday will be his first full day in his new temporary home in Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome, where he will live for several months until a new residence being prepared for him is ready inside the Vatican.
Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, the pontiff emeritus' secretary, reported to the Vatican Friday that the former pope spent his first hours in Castel Gandolfo eating dinner, walking in the palace gardens and watching television news coverage of his departure. He celebrated mass Friday morning, Gaenswein said. Gaenswein also reported that Benedict has restarted playing the piano, one of the passions of his youth.
This process to select the next pope is already in stark contrast to previous modern conclaves, when a specific date for the start of conclave was announced, usually within about 15 days of the death of the pope. This one is different because Benedict XVI resigned, meaning work on the conclave could start behind the scenes while Benedict was still pontiff. In fact, in his final days Benedict changed the rules to allow the conclave to start sooner than it would otherwise.
Thursday evening at a press conference in Rome, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, a past president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and an elector in the 2005 conclave that picked Benedict, said the cardinals will spend the days before the conclave in "smaller, more intimate conversations."
According to the Catholic News Service, these private talks are "where the cardinals ask each other about specific cardinals they know or want to know more about. He said they ask questions like, 'What do you know about this candidate? And could you tell me how he would react to this? And what sort of person is he, what's his personality?'"
The Italian newspaper Il Messaggero reported that around three dozen cardinals were in town to see Benedict off on Thursday, and so assumptions are that congregations will start with at least that many cardinals on Monday. But it is too early to tell how long it will take for the remaining cardinals to arrive.
Once the conclave starts it will also be the first conclave in 719 years to take place with the previous pope still alive, when Celestine V, who, like Benedict, resigned voluntarily, witnessed the installation of Boniface VII in 1294. Gregory XII was the last pope to resign, when he was forced to abdicate in 1415.But he died before the election of his successor Martin V.
There are 117 cardinals eligible to vote to select the next pope (only cardinals younger than 80 can vote), but two will not make the trip: Cardinal Julius Darmaatmadja of Indonesia, who is physically unable to travel, and Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien, who has said he will not make the trip in order to avoid diverting attention from the conclave. O'Brien has denied allegations that he had "inappropriate" relations with priests in the 1980s.
The allegations against O'Brien are part of a long series of potential scandals that have emerged in recent weeks and that will be among the first issues that must be confronted by the next pope. Reports of a secret investigation into an alleged network of gay clergy working in the Vatican surfaced in Benedict's last week as pope. The results of the investigation have been sealed until the next pope is elected.
Additionally, the Vatican bank has been charged with money laundering. Other potential problems for the next pope include the hidden information about Benedict's declining health over the last year and controversy related to leaked Vatican documents dubbed "Vatileaks." Charges of cover-ups related to pedophile priest scandals are also expected to weigh on the next papacy. The Italian media has begun to describe the collective weight of the scandals as the "116th Cardinal" who will be in the conclave when the voting actually begins.
Cardinal Turkson of Ghana is the current favorite of the oddsmakers to become the next pope. Election posters for Cardinal Turkson started appearing around Rome on Friday. It is not clear who put them there.