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Swiss Guards salute Italian Cardinal Renato Martino after a meeting at the Vatican March 4, 2013. Preparations for electing Roman Catholicism's new leader begin in earnest on Monday as the College of Cardinals opens daily talks to sketch an identikit for the next pope and ponder who among them might fit it.


For the College of Cardinals, the so-called princes of the Catholic church, the real action has started.

They have arrived in Rome and are selecting the successor to Pope Benedict XVI, who left the Vatican last week by way of helicopter instead of the usual funeral procession. The church does not like being popeless for long and the men with the red caps and elegant red sashes hope to elect a replacement for Benedict – now Joseph Ratzinger, pope emeritus – by Palm Sunday on March 24.

The election process started Monday with the first of the general congregation meetings,which are the crucial sessions held before the secret ballot, known as conclave (whose date has yet to be set). Monday's congregation was largely a procedural affair and included oaths of secrecy.

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The other meetings this week, all held outside the Vatican proper at the modern Paul VI Auditorium near the left flank of St. Peter's Basilica, will delve into more serious matters: the church's relationship with other religions, to the crisis in North America and Europe, where attendance has plummeted.

Of course, the cardinals' real agenda during these meetings is to size up the best candidates for the top job, whose name will be revealed after the white smoke rises from the Sistine Chapel.

General congregations and conclaves are complicated affairs, shrouded in mystery and intrigue in the best, and worst, of Vatican traditions. Herewith answers to some of the questions asked by bewildered lay people about the Vatican's greatest show:

How long do conclaves last?

The one that turned Germany's Cardinal Ratzinger into Pope Benedict lasted a mere two days, although some have lasted far longer. One of the Avignon conclaves was rudely interrupted by mercenaries and lasted two years, from 1314 to 1316. John Allen, the National Catholic Reporter correspondent, author and long-time Vatican watcher, predicted a three- to four-day grinder because, unlike the last two conclaves, there is no obvious front-runner. In other words, a tight vote is expected (the 115 elector cardinals keep voting until a two-thirds majority is reached).

So who are the most current front-runners?

The "buzz meter," as Mr. Allen calls the conclave's hype and gossip machine, centres on four names, or at least it has in the past few days. They are:

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Angelo Scola: The archbishop of Milan, a student and teacher of moral philosophy, occupies the more conservative end of the Christian spectrum. Being Italian may be both a blessing and a curse; a blessing because he may get the support of the 28 Italian elector cardinals, who might want to see one of their own back on the throne; a curse because the Italian control of the Curia, the Vatican's governing body, has made the Curia a mess, according to some Vatican watchers.

Leonardo Sandri: A rising star in the Vatican hierarchy, the Argentine cardinal is considered a moderate on most issues. But what sets him apart is that he is considered an adept administrator, one who could clean up the Curia.

Odilo Scherer: The Brazilian is, at a mere 63, considered an energetic teenager by cardinal standards. He has both pastoral and Vatican experience, has been lauded for restoring some order to the chaotic Sao Paolo diocese and comes from the country with the greatest number of Catholics.

Marc Ouellet: A theologian in the Benedict mold, the Canadian is considered a deeply spiritual man, but one who is cosmopolitan. He spent much of his career in Colombia and understands the Latin American church. Benedict gave him the power to select bishops, making him one of the Vatican heavyweights.

Does Cardinal Ouellet want the big job?

Hard to say. In a 2011 interview with Salt and Light, the Canadian Catholic TV channel, he said that being pope "would be a nightmare" because of its "crushing responsibility." But on CBC-TV on Monday night, he hardly gave the impression that he yearns to be removed from contention. "I have to be ready even if I think that probably others could do it better," he said. "We have to be, to some extent, prepared."

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Hold on. Don't his comments come close to campaigning?

Self promotion is considered a big no-no among the cardinals, who are said to adhere to the old saying "He who goes into conclave a pope comes out a cardinal." But Cardinal Ouellet is just one of many cardinals to have spoken to the press ahead of the 2013 conclave as the Vatican strives to become more open and media friendly. Still, you can go only so far. Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, the best hope for an African pope, has been considered a bit too media friendly. Small wonder that Rome has become cluttered with joke "Vote Turkson" posters.

Where do the cardinals do their lobbying?

Not in public, so don't go looking for them in Rome's higher-end cafés and restaurants. When they are not in official meetings, they collect at the Vatican hotel, ecclesiastical colleges and at informal lunches and dinners at the Vatican itself. Mr. Allen says the non-official meetings are important because they are where "the political sausage gets ground." It is also important to remember that some of the elector cardinals do not know one another, so the get-togethers provide opportunities for personality readings.

How does the 2005 conclave differ from this one?

Reporters who covered the 2005 conclave say there is no comparison. The last edition started with the death of one of the the most beloved popes ever, Poland's John Paul II, and lured some five million adoring, sobbing Catholics to Rome. This time, there is no funeral, and hence no mass outpouring of love and grief. Benedict also lacked the star power of his predecessor. Rome proceeds as usual. Makes you wonder why 4,300 journalists are accredited to the event.

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It appears that security is somewhat lacking at the Vatican.

Indeed, an imposter, German-born Ralph Napierski, almost made it into the cardinals' general congregation Monday. The Swiss Guards flung him out when they noticed his cassock was too short and his sash too purple – cardinals use red accessories. Vatican spokesman Rev. Frederico Lombardi later assured news media that, "Everyone seated for the congregation is a real cardinal."

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