VATICAN CITY 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.
The idea is to have the new pope elected during next week and officially installed several days later so he can preside over the Holy Week ceremonies starting with Palm Sunday on March 24 and culminating in Easter the following Sunday.
The general congregations, closed-door meetings in the interregnum between a papacy and the conclave to choose the next one, will hold morning and afternoon sessions in an apparent effort to discuss as much as possible in a short time.
The list of challenges facing the crisis-hit Church could take weeks to debate, but the Vatican seems keen to have only a week of talks so the 115 cardinal electors -- those under 80 -- can enter the Sistine Chapel for the conclave next week.
High on the agenda will be Church governance after last year's Vatileaks scandal exposed corruption and rivalries in the Vatican's Curia bureaucracy. Cardinals expect to be briefed on a secret report to the pope on the problems it highlighted.
"We should know about some things we don't have enough information about because of our work or the distance (from Rome)," Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga told Italian television.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston in Texas, noted more than half the cardinal electors had been named since the now retired Pope Benedict was chosen in 2005 and had to find out how this most secretive of elections is conducted.
"Part of this is learning," he told journalists. Cardinals over 80 can attend the general congregations and discuss issues with the electors, but not take part in the conclave itself.
SIZING UP CANDIDATES
The meetings are also a time for sizing up the undeclared candidates by watching them closely in the debates and checking discreetly with other cardinals about their qualifications.
"I don't think any of us will go in saying 'this is who I will vote for'," Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley said. "You're faced with a number of choices."
One urgent decision the cardinals must take is when to go into the conclave. Only all 115 electors can make the decision and not all are in Rome yet, so it may take a few days before the actual date is set.
Cardinals never reveal publicly who they prefer but drop hints in interviews by discussing the identikit for their ideal candidate. The most frequently mentioned quality here is an ability to communicate the Catholic faith convincingly.
Several strike a note of nostalgia for the charismatic late Pope John Paul after eight years of his shy successor Benedict, who shocked the Catholic world by becoming the first pope in almost 600 years to resign last month.
Most cardinals say the new pope could come from outside Europe, but it is not clear if the conclave, which has a slight majority of European cardinals, will break the long-standing tradition of choosing only men from the continent.
SEXUAL ABUSE CRISIS
The sexual abuse crisis haunting the Church should also play a role, especially since one elector - Cardinal Keith O'Brien - quit as Edinburgh archbishop last week and pulled out of attending the conclave because of abuse accusations against him.
O'Brien initially denied the allegations but issued a statement on Sunday evening apologizing because "my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal."
Two cardinals mentioned as possible candidates added other issues to the discussion list in interviews with Reuters.
Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, an Argentine who heads the Curia department for Eastern Catholic Churches, said the Church must give women more leadership positions in the Vatican and beyond.
New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan said the growing phenomenon of people believing in God but rejecting organized churches, known among sociologists of religion as "believing without belonging," was a major challenge for the Church in future.
(Reporting By Tom Heneghan; Editing by Stephen Powell)