VATICAN CITY — No date has yet been fixed for the start of the conclave to elect a pope, amid calls Wednesday by U.S. cardinals not to rush the process so as to allow for a more thorough discussion about the challenges facing the Catholic Church.
Cardinals are currently holding preliminary talks in Rome in the form of General Congregations, in which general Church problems are discussed. Once cardinals feel they are ready, a date for the start of the conclave will be fixed.
"No date for the conclave was decided," Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said after Wednesday's session was over.
Italian newspapers were full of reports suggesting that U.S. cardinals, backed by their German peers, were against a quick conclave start. Leading members of the Roman Curia, most of them Italian, reportedly want to get the election process started as soon as possible.
"My feeling has never been that we would have started on March 10 or 11," Chicago Archbishop Francis George was quoted as saying by La Stampa.
"This is the time for a long reflection," German Cardinal Walter Kasper said in an interview with La Repubblica. "This conclave must be prepared carefully," he added.
Lombardi skirted questions about the reported clash. He said all cardinals agreed on the need for "an adequate, serious, in-depth and not-rushed preparation." Consequently, setting a date for the conclave "could be perceived . as forcing things," he said.
However, he deemed it "likely" that the Catholic Church would have a new leader by Palm Sunday, which this year falls on March 24.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, another U.S. prelate, told the Vatican Insider website that he was "very, very much in favor" of starting the conclave in time to allow cardinals from around the world to return to their dioceses for Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter.
All the 115 cardinals due to take part in the conclave were expected to be in Rome by Thursday, Lombardi said. The last two yet to arrive were Polish Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz and Vietnamese Cardinal Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man.
In a sign that procedures might speed up on Thursday, Lombardi said the General Congregation would on that day meet also in the evening, rather than only in the morning, so as "to intensify the rate of work."
In a related development, U.S. cardinals appeared to have been urged to show greater discretion with the media. Their daily news conference was cancelled Wednesday, while Lombardi referred to the "tradition of confidentiality" applying to the papal election process.
No clear front-runner has emerged so far to succeed Benedict XVI. The 85-year-old German-born Joseph Ratzinger resigned last week, claiming he was too frail to continue. He was the first pope to leave office in almost 600 years.
Lombardi said that the seal on Benedict's fisherman's ring - one of the symbols of the papacy - had been defaced, a move that had been expected for days. His successor will be given a new ring.
Cardinal George told La Stampa that the field of papal contenders "was getting wider, rather than narrower. The names you have seen in the papers make sense, but we are also talking about candidates that nobody has talked about until now."
The papal election is taking place against the backdrop of a string of serious corruption and sex scandals. Last week, Scottish cardinal Keith O'Brien withdrew from the conclave after being accused of abusing priests, a charge he later admitted.
The Church is also reeling from VatiLeaks - the leaking of confidential papal papers that exposed alleged power struggles and graft in the Roman Curia. Three cardinals have led a secret probe whose findings are being discussed informally in the run-up to the conclave.
"It's normal that the cardinals, especially those that come from abroad, want to know more about this issue," Italian cardinal Antonio Maria Veglio said in a radio interview to the RAI Italian state broadcaster.
Reforming the Roman Curia to prevent fresh scandals will be one of the key priorities. Il Messaggero, a Rome-based daily, suggested that the new pope could appoint as secretary of state - the equivalent of a Vatican prime minister - Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano.
Vigano, currently Holy See ambassador to the United States, was a key figure in the VatiLeaks affair. The leaked documents suggested he had been driven away from the Roman Curia and sent abroad after exposing too many instances of corruption inside the Vatican.