Cardinals have begun preparations at the Vatican to elect a new pope, possibly by Easter. Britain's former top Catholic Church cleric will not take part in the conclave, having admitted to sexual misconduct on Sunday.
Some 140 cardinals converged on the Vatican on Monday to set a date for the start of a conclave during which a successor to Benedict XVI is to be chosen.
A decision on the timing of that closed-door assembly was not expected immediately but there was widespread media speculation that the Vatican might be aiming to have a new pope elected next week so he can preside over ceremonies leading up to Easter at the end of March.
The German Catholic news agency KNA said none of the cardinals spoke to reporters as they left Monday's first session for lunch. Seating inside had been strictly allocated, it said, according to the date of their appointment as cardinal and clerical rank. Discussion had been translated simultaneously in five languages - Italian, English, French, Spanish and German.
So far, there is no clear favourite to succeed Benedict - the first pope to resign in almost 600 years.
However, leading candidates include Peter Turkson of Ghana, Leonardo Sandri of Argentina, Austrian Christoph Schönborn, Brazil's Odilo Scherer, Canadian Marc Ouellet and Angelo Scola, from Italy.
The chairman of the Conference of German Catholic Bishops, Robert Zollitsch told the news agency DPA that he preferred a successful candidacy from outside Europe and possibly from Latin America.
"The question of whether a future pope should come from Latin America may play an important role," said Zollitsch, adding that Latin America had a "string of high-profile cardinals. "They are open to the world and at the same time very disciplined and motivated by deep faith," Zollitsch said.
Arriving for Monday's preliminary session, French cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois said: "We're going to take as much time as we need to think about what sort of pope the Church needs now."
"I'd be keen to have a polyglot, a man of faith, a man of dialogue ... The new pope will certainly have to confront problems within the Curia," Vingt-Trois added, referring recent scandals and the Roman Catholic Church's central administration.
Benedict ended his papacy last Thursday, after saying that at 85, he was too frail to continue in office. He retired initially to Castel Gandolfo, on the outskirts of Rome, and is not to return to retirement quarters at the Vatican - now being renovated - until a new pope is elected.
The US cardinal Roger Mahony wrote on Sunday in a social network message that the selection process could take less than two weeks.
‘Below the standards'
One cardinal who had been a potential elector, Keith O'Brien, who quit as Edinburgh archbishop last week, said on Sunday that he apologized "to those I have offended."
"I wish to take this opportunity to admit that there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal," O'Brien said in a statement posted on the Scottish Catholic media website. But he gave no details of any wrongdoing.
mkg, ipj/pfd (AFP, Reuters, AP, dpa)