VATICAN CITY — It is still too early to say when the conclave to elect a new pope will start, the Vatican said Tuesday, as cardinals were still trickling in to Rome to take part in the closed-door assembly.
"I think it is premature to make any forecast about dates," Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi told reporters.
Amid signs that cardinals were taking their time, they voted to hold only one morning session of the General Congregation, a preliminary forum for discussions which had met also in the evening of its opening day Monday.
The Catholic Church is waiting for all cardinals eligible to vote — that is, those under the age of 80 — to arrive in Rome before starting the conclave, which traditionally takes place in the Sistine Chapel.
As of Tuesday, five out of an expected total of 115 were still awaited — one each from Hong Kong, Vietnam, Egypt, Poland and Germany, Lombardi said. "Tomorrow we will be missing (only) one or two," he added.
Having latecomers was "within normality," Lombardi said, explaining that some of them have been held back by official engagements that they had planned a long time in advance.
He clarified that the date of the conclave could be set before all so-called cardinal electors arrive, as long as there was certainty that they would get to Rome in time for the scheduled start.
Italian media were betting on the conclave to begin on Monday.
The contest for the new pope is seen as wide-open. One likely contender among the Italian candidates is the archbishop of Milan, Angelo Scola, but there is also talk of electing a non-European for the first time since the eight century.
Preparations started in the Sistine Chapel to accommodate the conclave. The world-famous site was closed to tourists from 1 p.m., along with two other sections of the Vatican Museums: the Borgia Apartment and the Collection of Modern Religious Art:
On the second day of the General Congregation, cardinals agreed on a telegram for Benedict XVI, who last week became the first pope in 600 years to retire. He has since moved outside Rome and will not return to the Vatican until his successor is chosen.
It also was announced that cardinals would take part in a Mass in St Peter's Basilica on Wednesday and that the event would be open to the public.
In their message, the cardinals praised Benedict's "shining" pontificate and thanked him for "his tireless work in the Lord's vineyard."
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