THE conclave, the centuries-old process by which a new Pope is elected, will begin on Tuesday, 12 days after Benedict XVI resigned the papacy.
More than 150 cardinals, who have held discussions in Rome all week on the crises facing the Roman Catholic Church, announced the start date yesterday.
The conclave will be held amid the utmost secrecy in the Sistine Chapel.
Anti-bugging devices and electronic jammers are being installed, windows looking on to an adjoining hall have been obscured with grey plastic sheeting and Vatican officials who will assist the cardinals during the election have had to swear an oath of secrecy.
The start date was announced amid reports that two distinct blocs have formed among the 115 "princes of the church" aged under 80 who are eligible to vote.
There is a reformist bloc led by Cardinal Angelo Scola, the Archbishop of Milan, which has the backing of many non-Italian cardinals.
They have been appalled by revelations of nepotism and cronyism in the Holy See that were revealed in documents leaked to the media.
The reformists are squaring up to a more traditionalist bloc led by Cardinal Odilo Peter Scherer, the Archbishop of Sao Paulo in Brazil, and comprising many Italian cardinals, who are resisting calls for radical reform of the Curia, the church's governing body.
Cardinal Scherer, who is of ethnic German background, has won the support of two of the Vatican's most powerful insiders – Tarcisio Bertone, the secretary of state under Benedict, and Angelo Sodano, his predecessor.
In return for their support, they want the next secretary of state to be an Italian.
If the two blocs go head to head when voting starts, the conclave could be long – a two-thirds majority is required to elect a new Pope.
The opposing groups might be forced to accept a compromise candidate with ties to neither bloc.
One name being touted is that of Cardinal Peter Erdo, the 60-year-old primate of Hungary and Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest.
Cardinal Sean Brady is the only Irish elector of the 115 in the conclave to choose the 266th Pope. (© Daily Telegraph, London)