VATICAN CITY — The race to replace Pope Benedict XVI could get under way Monday, just four days after the 85-year-old pontiff vacated the papacy, citing ailing health.
More than 100 Catholic cardinals gathered in Vatican City on Monday morning for the first of two meetings where they could set a date for the next conclave -- when all cardinals under age 80 meet at the Vatican to vote for the next pope.
A second meeting is planned for Monday afternoon.
Benedict was the first pope to resign in 600 years. Throughout history, the transfer of papal power has almost always happened after the sitting pope has died.
Normally, the College of Cardinals is not allowed to select a new pontiff until 15 to 20 days after the office becomes vacant. However, Benedict slightly amended the 500-year-old policy on pope selection to get a successor into place more rapidly.
The cardinals may to be able to pull it off before March 15, according to Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi.
This would give the new pontiff a little over a week to prepare for the next mass, Palm Sunday celebrations, on March 24.
Some gambling houses in Europe are offering odds on who will become the next head of the Catholic Church.
The favorites include Archbishop Angelo Scola and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone of Italy. They also include Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, who could become the first African pontiff since Pope Gelasius I died more than 1500 years ago; and Cardinal Marc Oullet of Canada, who could become the first North American pope.
While Benedict won't be directly involved in his successor's selection, his influence will undoubtedly be felt. He appointed 67 of at least 115 cardinals set to make the decision.
Cardinals must vote for the pope in person, via paper ballot only. While some work at the Vatican, most are spread out worldwide running dioceses or archdioceses, and would have to travel to Rome.
Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Saturday that 75 cardinals normally live in Rome and another 66 had arrived or were in the process of arriving, making 141 in total. However, most of the cardinals who live in Rome are retired and/or over the age of 80, and therefore are not entitled to vote for the new pope.
Once the process begins, they aren't allowed to talk with anyone outside of the conclave. And they can't leave until the voting is done, and the telltale white smoke emerges from the Vatican chimney, letting the world know the conclave has agreed on a new leader.