VATICAN CITY — The Roman Catholic Church marked its first Sunday in nearly eight years without a papal blessing, as cardinals gathered to elect a new leader of the 1.2 billion-member faith in one of the most troubled periods of its history.
The windows of the papal apartments overlooking St. Peter's Square were shut, which is normally the case only when a Pope is outside Rome and delivers the Sunday blessing elsewhere.
There was no papal blessing of any kind, the first time the church has been in such a state of limbo since Sunday, April 3, 2005, the day after Pope John Paul died.
"It's strange, very strange to come to Rome to St. Peter's Square and not to hear the Angelus [Sunday blessing] of the Pope, especially because the Pope is still alive — it's a unique situation that we are living through," said Fabio Ferrara, who was one of the few people in the square at noon.
"We have been praying a lot, it's sad, it is very, very sad, we feel like orphans," said Sister Agnese Carreddu, an Italian nun in the square.
Catholics at Sunday Masses throughout the world did not hear the customary prayer for "our pope, Benedict." It will be omitted from every Mass until there is a new Pope.
On Monday cardinals will begin preliminary meetings to get to know each other, discuss church issues and decide the starting date of the closed-door conclave to choose Benedict's successor.
The meetings are open to all cardinals, whereas only those under 80 can enter the Sistine Chapel and elect a new Pope from their own ranks.
Currently 115 cardinal electors are due to take part in the conclave, which many believe will start around March 10.
The Vatican seems to be aiming for an election by mid-March so the new Pope can be installed in office before Palm Sunday on March 24 and lead Holy Week services culminating in Easter the following Sunday.
No front-runner stands out and no campaigning is allowed for the election but leading candidates include Peter Turkson of Ghana, Leonardo Sandri of Argentina, Austrian Christoph Schoenborn, Brazil's Odilo Scherer, Canadian Marc Ouellet and Angelo Scola, the leading candidate from Italy.
'SAINTLY MAN' SOUGHT
In an exclusive interview with Reuters, Sandri said the Church must open itself up to women in the next pontificate, giving them more leadership positions in the Vatican and beyond.
He also said the next Pope should not be chosen according to a geographic area but must be a "saintly man" who is "best qualified" to lead the church in a time of crisis.
Benedict ended his difficult eight-year reign on Thursday pledging unconditional obedience to whoever succeeds him.
The cardinals will be worrying about a bureaucracy hit by scandals, intrigue and betrayals befitting a Renaissance court.
As well as sexual abuse by priests around the world, the scandals closer to home involve the leak of Benedict's personal papers, media reports of sexual misconduct in the Vatican, wiretapping, bureaucratic bungling and mishaps that many say could have been avoided.
The foreign cardinals who will choose the next Pope have been particularly alarmed over the reports and might be inclined to pick someone not connected with the Vatican's Italian-dominated central administration, Vatican insiders say.
The cardinals will not see a top secret report prepared for Pope Benedict on mismanagement and infighting. But its three cardinal authors will be in the general congregations to advise electors on its findings.
"Since we don't really know what's in the report, I think we'll depend on the cardinals in the congregations to share with us what they think will be valuable for us to know to make the right decision for the future," said Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley.
The Vatican has accused the Italian media of spreading "false and damaging" reports, condemning some as deplorable attempts to influence the cardinal electors.
But last week it acknowledged that parts of an Italian magazine report about wiretapping in the Vatican were true. It said "a few" phones had been tapped by magistrates investigating the leaks scandal but that the tapping was not as widespread as the magazine suggested.
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