Cardinal electors assembled in Rome will begin voting for the next pope March 12.Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, announced the date for the start of the election, known as a conclave, in a message to reporters March 8.The first session of voting inside the Sistine Chapel will begin in the afternoon, following a morning Mass "Pro eligendo Summo Pontifice" ("for the election of the supreme pontiff") in St. Peter's Basilica.Rules governing papal elections state that a conclave must start between 15 and 20 days after the Holy See falls vacant; but shortly before his resignation Feb. 28, Pope Benedict XVI issued a decree allowing cardinal to move up the start date if they choose.The College of Cardinals decided the date on the fifth day of its pre-conclave meetings, after waiting for the 115 cardinals eligible and expected to vote. The last to arrive in Rome was Cardinal Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, who joined the others March 7.At the morning session March 8, before announcing the scheduled vote, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, told the assembly that with the changes made by Pope Benedict, the cardinals would not have to debate on whether they were authorized to begin the conclave before March 15, Father Lombardi said.During the same session, the cardinals chose 87-year-old Cardinal Prosper Grech, a Maltese expert in the early church fathers, to give the meditation at the beginning of the conclave.The Vatican spokesman said that 18 cardinals spoke during the morning session. As people around the world observed International Women's Day, one of the cardinals spoke about the role of women in the church.Other topics included interreligious dialogue, bioethics, the church's role in promoting justice, collegiality in the church and the need for the church's evangelizers to proclaim God's love and mercyEarlier this week, Father Lombardi said he could not give specific details of the discussions because he is bound by an oath of secrecy to give only general information. He said March 5 the subjects were "broad and varied," and included "the activity of the Holy See and its various dicasteries, their relationships with the bishops, the renewal of the church in the light of the Second Vatican Council, the situation of the church and the needs for new evangelization in the world, including in different cultural situations."He noted that by the end of the March 5 session, 33 cardinals "from every continent" had addressed the group. The meeting was attended by 148 cardinals.Two U.S. cardinals who will vote in the papal election said March 5 there is no rush to set a date for voting, which could start as late as March 20. "This is the most important decision that some of us will ever make, and we need to give it the time that's necessary," Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston told journalists March 5, after the second day of the pre-conclave meeting known as the general congregation. "I believe the feeling of the cardinals is we want to have enough time in the general congregation so that when we go to the conclave itself, it's a time of a decision," Cardinal O'Malley said. "The general congregation is the time of discernment, and as much time as we need for discernment in prayer, reflection and getting information, then we need to use as much time as we have." The rules for papal elections state that voting must begin between 15 and 20 days after the Holy See falls vacant. Shortly before he resigned Feb. 28, Pope Benedict XVI issued a decree permitting the cardinals to move the date up if they choose. Some cardinals have said that starting earlier would be an advantage for residential bishops among the cardinal-electors, since that would make it more likely that they could get back to their dioceses in time for Palm Sunday, March 24. "The question about trying to be home for Holy Week has to do with simply practical matters," Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston told the same gathering of journalists at the North American College in Rome. "And practical matters always will fall by the wayside when more serious matters are at stake. "It takes as long as it takes," the cardinal said. "If it takes longer to do the work of discernment that we're supposed to do, it will take that amount of time." Cardinal DiNardo said that formal discussions on the conclave date had not begun, since not all the cardinal-electors had arrived in Rome. Under the revision of the rules issued by Pope Benedict, all the electors must be present before the College of Cardinals can change the date of the conclave. Sistine Chapel closedFather Lombardi also announced that the Sistine Chapel, where the conclave will take place, was officially closed to tourists beginning the afternoon of March 5 so workers could begin preparing it. The major work involves putting in a false floor so there are no steps, then putting in tables and chairs for the cardinals. Two stoves will be installed: one to burn ballots and the other to burn chemicals to create different colored smoke to let the public know if a pope was selected or not.During the conclave, the cardinals will use three urns for the ballots. Video images of the urns, commissioned by the Vatican for the 2005 conclave, were shown to reporters during the March 5 news conference.One urn is for the ballots cast in the Sistine Chapel, another is for ballots cast in the Domus Sanctae Marthae by cardinals too ill to go to the chapel. Once those ballots are counted, they will be placed in the third urn and carried to the stove for burning.The cardinals met twice March 4. Father Lombardi said that day only two cardinals — Indonesian Cardinal Julius Darmaatmadja, the 78-year-old retired archbishop of Jakarta, and Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien, 74, who retired as archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh after being accused of sexual misconduct — have formally informed the Vatican that they will not attend the conclave.On March 3, Cardinal O'Brien admitted to past acts of sexual misconduct, issuing a statement in which he publicly acknowledged his failures. He said that his sexual conduct had "fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and a cardinal. To those I have offended, I apologize and ask forgiveness. To the Catholic Church and people of Scotland, I also apologize."To Pope Benedict: A message of thanksThe cardinals also accepted a proposal to conduct an evening prayer service March 6 at the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter's Basilica, presided by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals."The cardinals hope to give a good example of the call to the whole church to live in prayer this time of preparing for the important moment of electing a pope," Father Lombardi said.During the second day of pre-conclave gatherings, the cardinals also thanked Pope Benedict XVI for his "tireless work" and example of "generous pastoral concern." The telegram, dated March 5, was signed by Cardinal Sodano and sent on behalf of all the cardinals present."The cardinal fathers gathered in the Vatican for their general congregations in view of the coming conclave send you, in chorus, a devoted greeting and express their renewed gratitude for the whole of your brilliant Petrine ministry and for the example given to them of a generous pastoral concern for the well-being of the church and the world," the telegram said. The cardinals' message of thanks also reflects the whole church's recognition of the retired pope's "tireless work in the vineyard of the Lord. In the end, the members of the College of Cardinals are counting on your prayers for them and the entire holy church.”The Vatican said 4,432 journalists had requested accredited just for the interregnum and conclave by March 4; they join some 600 reporters, photographers and videographers accredited to the Vatican permanently. The media represent 1,004 outlets from 65 countries and work in 24 languages, Father Lombardi said.—CNS{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0308/vatican/{/gallery}