VATICAN CITY — Cardinals from around the world have descended on Rome to discuss some of the major problems facing the Catholic Church ahead of the conclave to elect Benedict XVI's successor as pope.
The first preconclave meeting is scheduled for today, headed by the dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano. He has said the date for the start of the conclave won't be set until all the cardinals are in Rome, meaning a definitive date may not come until midweek.
The function of the preconclave sessions is to discuss core issues facing the church and for the cardinals to get to know one another better — both of which are designed to help the 115 voting-age "princes" of the church choose the right man for the papacy.
This time around, there's one unofficial agenda item that is attracting the most attention: a briefing from the three cardinals who conducted the investigation into the leaks of confidential documents from the pope's study.
Italian news reports have revealed a fairly high level of dysfunction within the Vatican bureaucracy, with intrigues, turf battles and allegations of corruption, nepotism and cronyism at the highest levels.
In one of his last audiences before resigning, Benedict met with the three cardinals who prepared the report and decided that their dossier would remain secret. But he gave them the go-ahead to answer cardinals' questions about its contents.
"What we talk about … will be certainly the governance of the church and in that context there may be questions to people who did the report," U.S. Cardinal Francis George told reporters. "I think we will find out a lot from a lot of sources to figure out what is necessary now to govern the church well here in Rome itself."
The pope's ex-butler was convicted by a Vatican court of stealing the papers and giving them to an Italian journalist, though he was later pardoned by Benedict.
Another topic facing the cardinals is the reason they're here in the first place: Benedict's resignation and its implications. His decision to end 600 years of tradition and retire rather than stay on the job until death has altered the concept of the papacy.
Previously, cardinals might have been wary about electing a very young pope, fearing a lengthy papacy. With Benedict's resignation, the field might be open now to a younger pope, or conversely an older one who may serve for a few years and then retire without having his final years play out on the world stage, as was the case with Pope John Paul II.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C., said the demands on a pope are enormous these days and take a toll: There's world travel, writing encyclicals, holding audiences with visiting heads of state and bishops — not to mention governing the 1.2 billion-strong church and taking time out to pray.
"I wonder if the church isn't better served by simply knowing we can choose the best person we think to be pope, then at a certain point if he thinks 'I can't do this anymore,' then he is free to step aside, just like Pope Benedict did," Wuerl said Sunday. "I think it is a very liberating thought that we are free to face this reality, this possibility."