They troop each day into a hall just a few minutes’ walk from St. Peter’s Square, passing through a doorway flanked by Swiss Guards in black berets and their distinctive red, yellow, and blue striped uniforms.
Around 150 cardinals from around the world are engaged in intensive talks this week about whom they will elect as the successor to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who resigned last week and is now living out his retirement in a 16th-century castle on a hill outside Rome.
The cardinals, wearing red sashes and black cassocks, are sworn to secrecy about the details of their discussions, most notably about whom they consider papabile or the most likely papal contenders.
At their first session on Monday, each of them placed his hands on the Bible and pledged “rigorous secrecy” over the proceedings – on pain of excommunication. But in the past few days they have been at liberty to discuss the broader problems facing the Roman Catholic Church, and the sort of man who will be needed to steer it out of the troubled waters of the last few years.
For a start, many cardinals would like to see a relatively young man appointed pope – Benedict was the 78 when he was chosen as the successor to John Paul II in 2005.
Eight years later, he said he no longer had the mental or physical strength to continue, becoming the first pontiff in nearly 600 years to abdicate.
Cardinal George Pell, 71, the Archbishop of Sydney, said age would be a “significant factor” when cardinals gather, probably next week, in the Sistine Chapel for the conclave – the secret process by which the new pope will be elected.
“I think it’s unlikely that we will choose somebody who’s 77 or 78. I think it’s also unlikely that we will choose somebody who is too young, however you define that, because I think there’s virtue in the papacy changing every 10, 15, or 20 years,” he told La Stampa newspaper this week.
Also wanted: polyglot administrator
The new pontiff would need to be an accomplished linguist and strategist with a proven capacity to administer.
“Some factors are rudimentary: a man of faith and prayer, a good track record, a man with languages. I think we need somebody who is a strategist, a decisionmaker, a planner, somebody who has got strong pastoral capacities already demonstrated so that he can take a grip of the situation and take the church forward,” Cardinal Pell said.
Among the issues the new pope will have to tackle head-on would be the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and the demographic decline and spreading secularism in the West, Pell said.
The new pontiff will also have to try to reform the intrigue-ridden Curia, the powerful governing body of the Holy See.
The theft and leaking of documents from Benedict’s private offices last year revealed a disconcerting picture of nepotism, cronyism, and alleged corruption within the Curia.
The documents were stolen and passed to the Italian media by Benedict’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, in what has been dubbed the “Vatileaks” affair. He was imprisoned for a few weeks in the Vatican but received a pardon from the pope just before Christmas.
Curiosity about Curia report
The pope personally appointed three elderly cardinals, including a prominent member of Opus Dei, to delve into the scandal, and they presented their 300-page, two-volume secret report to him in December.
There has been intense speculation that the report was a factor in Benedict’s decision to resign the papacy.
Cardinals said this week that they were keen to know more about the report and what it discovered about malpractice, jealousy, and turf battles within the Curia.
"I would imagine that as we move along there will be questioning of cardinals involved in the governing of the Curia to see what they think has to be changed, and in that context anything can come up," said an American cardinal, Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago.
"I think the Curia in general, beyond whatever emerges from Vatileaks, needs to be revolutionized. And as well as the word reform, there must be a second: transparency. The Curia must begin to open up, and not fear transparency," German Cardinal Walter Kasper said in an interview with La Repubblica, an Italian daily newspaper.
The broader scandal
The new pontiff will also be expected to be more proactive in dealing with the hugely damaging pedophile priest scandals that have rocked the church over the last decade.
"He obviously has to accept the universal code of the church, which is zero tolerance for anyone who has ever abused a child,” said Cardinal George. "There's a deep-seated conviction, certainly on the part of anyone who has been a pastor, that this has to be continually addressed."
But associations representing sex abuse victims say they have heard these bland assurances before, and that a new pope will have to be much more active in taking to task predatory priests and the bishops who protect them.
“The PR mantra from the Catholic Church in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas has been – ‘We didn’t know, we have learnt from our mistakes, we are reforming, we are sorry,’” says David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests or SNAP. “Despite all the payouts to victims and the lawsuits, there’s virtually no church official who has been demoted or disciplined or defrocked. That needs to change.”
Many cardinals do not have the moral legitimacy to take part in this week’s discussions – known as General Congregations – nor in the conclave, SNAP argues.
“It might sound extreme but we suspect most of the cardinals to be complicit in covering up predator priests. Crises have erupted in country after country and the pattern is always the same,” says Mr. Clohessy.
“Their presence in Rome rubs salt into the wounds of betrayed Catholics and suffering victims. It sends precisely the wrong message – that you can engage in wrongdoing but you won’t face any consequences. They should voluntarily go home.”
The group also released a "dirty dozen" list of 12 papabile cardinals whom they consider to be "the worst choices in terms of protecting kids, healing victims, and exposing corruption."
Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga of Honduras insisted Benedict had made progress in cracking down on sexually abusive priests, but said those “cleanup initiatives” must continue under his successor. "We must present a church with a transparent face," he said.
Cardinal Jean Luis Cipriani Thorne, the archbishop of Lima, said the priest sex abuse scandals remained “a grave wound” to the body of the church. “The new pope will need to confront them straightaway,” he said.
The cardinals are expected to announce in the next day or two the start date for the conclave. The Sistine Chapel was closed to tourists on Tuesday, to make way for carpenters, electricians, and other technicians to prepare it for the conclave.
The new pope will be chosen by 115 elector cardinals who qualify to vote because they are under the age of 80.