VATICAN CITY -- Like first-year seminarians, they walked through the glass doors on Monday carrying briefcases. Some arrived in chauffeured cars and taxis. Wearing long black coats and red caps, they took their assigned places in maroon lecture-halls seats, flipped through the assigned reading, recited prayers and swore on the Bible to "maintain rigorous secrecy" about their task.
Some 145 cardinals gathered on the first day of meetings required upon the end of a papacy -- usually by death, but in this rare case, resignation. The morning session was devoted to preparatory matters. Through the week, the cardinals will discuss matters of importance to the church and choose a date -- possibly as early as Sunday or Monday -- for the conclave to elect a successor to Benedict XVI, who stepped aside last week.
The general congregation, as it is called, will also be a chance for the cardinals to make a case for what kind of pope they want, and to size one another up at coffee breaks and later over dinner. All have emphasized in interviews over the past week that they want a prayerful pope who can effectively transmit the Catholic message.
But nuances are already emerging. Some say they want a pope capable of reforming the bureaucracy of the Vatican, which has been hit with accusations of corruption in the past year. Others suggest a pope must come from the Third World, where Roman Catholicism is more vibrant than Europe. Still others want a pope with a strong governing hand.
On Monday, a senior American cardinal made a rare mention of the clerical sexual abuse scandal in that discourse. Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago, said the new pope "obviously has to accept the universal code of the church now, which is zero tolerance for anyone who has abused a child." Speaking in answer to a question at a news conference, Cardinal George said, "There's a deep-seated conviction, certainly on the part of anyone who has been a pastor, that this has to be continually addressed."
The cardinal asserted that efforts by American churchmen had led to a sharp reduction in reported abuse cases. "But there's still the victims," he continued. "The wound is still deep in their hearts, and as long as it's with them it will be with us. The pope has to keep this in mind."
The church's response to the latest wave of sexual abuse scandals, which emerged with full force a decade ago in the United States and in to Europe and elsewhere more recently, has not been the subject of as much discussion in the lead-up to the conclave. But it was not surprising that an American prelate addressed the matter so forcefully. In 2002, United States bishops pressed a "zero tolerance" policy -- the rapid removal from ministry of any priest credibly accused of abuse -- and other nations' bishops followed suit in later years. The Vatican has also taken a number of steps that it says will tighten sanctions against abuser priests.
One advocate for clerical abuse victims, David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, called Cardinal George's statement encouraging. "It should be a topic and we are glad that Cardinal George said it will be and must be," he said, "but the focus has got to be on safeguarding kids first, healing victims second."
Separately, Vatican officials declined to comment on The acknowledgment on Sunday by Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the most senior Roman Catholic cleric in Britain and a vehement condemner of homosexuality, that he had engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct. He announced his resignation a week earlier and said he was not coming to the conclave after three priests and a former priest accused him of making improper advances decades ago.
"We're not going to spend the rest of the week talking about Cardinal O'Brien," the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said in response to questions from British journalists at a news conference. Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, said the issue had not come up at the meeting.
Questions may arise among the cardinals, Cardinal George suggested, about a report by three senior cardinals on corruption and leaks within the Vatican bureaucracy, or Curia, that was ordered by Benedict. Benedict consigned the report to his successor, and it remains secret.
"I imagine that as we move along, there will be questioning of the cardinals involved in the governing of the Curia to see what they think has to be changed," he said. "Anything can come up."
The cardinals met in the Paul VI hall, a building where popes normally hold general audiences and where bishops from around the world gather in synods. No date for the conclave's start can be set until all the elector cardinals -- those under 80 and eligible to vote -- arrive. Father Lombardi said 12 of the 115 elector cardinals were still on their way. The date of the conclave should be fixed in the next few days, he said.
Cardinal George said the eminences wanted to have a pope before the start of Holy Week, which is Palm Sunday on March 24, but would not be rushed. "We'll take the time necessary to do the job well," he said.
The general congregation is the last chance in this process for cardinals over 80 to make their voices heard, and while time limits are imposed on speakers, the older crowd is indulged, past participants have said. Thirty-nine over-age cardinals were present on Monday, Father Lombardi said. The college has 207 members over all.
The Vatican press operation appears to be making an effort to be more open about what is by definition a highly secretive process. Telepace, an Italian-based Catholic television station, showed the cardinals going into the hall live. The Vatican has promised daily news conferences.
"Perhaps they decided that it's best to talk to the press rather than not talk to the press," Cardinal George said.
At the Vatican news conference, reporters were shown clips of the prelates inside the hall, walking past heavily draped windows in a corridor, entering the assembly hall and taking their seats in the raked auditorium, chatting with each other and flipping through the book of conclave ritual with its green hard cover, the Ordo rituum conclavis.
The cardinals sat in assigned seats to make it easier to keep attendance and keep track of who speaks, Father Lombardi said.
The princes of the church will speak through a microphone, which at the last conclave, in 2005, would be cut off generally after roughly seven minutes, Cardinal George said in an interview. Interpreters, sworn to secrecy, will render their comments into English, Spanish, Italian, German and French.
The cardinals agreed to send a message to Benedict, who has retreated to the papal summer home in Castel Gandolfo outside of Rome. Much of the session, which began at 9:30 a.m., was taken up with each man walking to the front table for the personal oath. At 11 a.m., they took a half-hour break, holding cardinal kaffeeklatsches. "It was an important moment for personal contacts, for exchanges at a more particular level," Father Lombardi said.
A baker's dozen of eminences spoke during a brief session, but mainly about logistical matters.
"As a start, it was very positive," Father Lombardi said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.