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In a recent interview with Mexican television, marking the second anniversary of his election, Pope Francis has suggested he may resign his papacy like his predecessor, rather than remain at the Vatican for life.

“I have the feeling that my pontificate will be brief. Four or five years; I do not know, even two or three,” the pontiff said.

Pope Francis praised Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to step aside in 2013 as “courageous”.

“Benedict should not be considered an exception, but an institution. Maybe he will be the only one for a long time, maybe he will not be the only one.

“But an institutional door has been opened,” Pope Francis told the Televisa channel.Pope Francis may resign

Pope Francis has hinted in the past that he could retire, but said he was opposed to the idea of an age limit for leaders of the Catholic Church.

“To say that one is in charge up to 80 years, creates a sensation that the pontificate is at its end and that would not be a good thing,” he added.

A papal conclave elected Pope Francis as Benedict XVI’s successor on March 13, 2013. He became the first Latin American to lead the Church.

During the interview Pope Francis admitted he was “surprised” by the decision and had only carried a small suitcase to Rome, with the expectation he would return to Buenos Aires.

His simple style has won him praise from Catholics, as have his promises to reform the Curia – the Church’s internal government.

However, he said two years of his papacy had now passed and he felt it would not continue for very much longer.

“I do not know. But I feel that the Lord has placed me here for a short time, and nothing more,” he added.

“But it is a feeling. I always leave the possibility open.”

Pope Francis told Televisa that he “did not mind being Pope”, but missed the anonymity associated with life as a priest.

“The only thing I would like is to go out one day, without being recognised, and go to a pizzeria for a pizza.”

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Pope Francis has declared Popes John Paul II and John XXIII saints in a ceremony attended by hundreds of thousands of people in St. Peter Square.

Pope Francis praised his two predecessors as “men of courage” at the Vatican service, the first time in history that two popes have been canonized at the same time.

The Mass was attended by Pope Emeritus Benedict, who quit as pope last year, and roughly 100 foreign delegations.

Analysts say Pope Francis is trying to balance the conservative legacy of John Paul with the reforming zeal of John.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis during Mass before the canonization ceremony of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis during Mass before the canonization ceremony of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II

At the climax of the service, Pope Francis said in Latin: “We declare and define Blessed John XXIII and John Paul II to be saints and we enroll them among the saints, decreeing that they are to be venerated as such by the whole Church.”

Relics of each man – a container of blood from John Paul and a piece of skin from John – were placed near the altar.

Pope Francis paid tribute to the two new saints as “priests, bishops and popes of the 20th Century”.

“They lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them. For them, God was more powerful,” he said.

The Vatican estimated some 800,000 pilgrims had poured into Rome to see the two-hour ceremony first-hand.

For those unable to make it into St Peter’s Square, giant screens were set up in nearby streets and elsewhere in the city.

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Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII’s canonization is bringing attention to the complex process of becoming a saint, a highly regulated series of steps that can seem quite mysterious to those who are not devout Roman Catholics.

How many saints are there?

It’s hard to pin down an exact number, but more than you might think. In the old days – as in the first thousand years of the church’s history – saints were created by popular demand.

St. Ulrich of Augsburg was the first to be canonized by a pope, in 993, and the Vatican eventually took over and formalized the process.

The Vatican’s Roman Martyrology says some 7,000 people have been canonized or beatified (an earlier step), but some scholars believe the total number of saints is more like 10,000.

Is it easier or harder to become a saint now?

The raw numbers would suggest it’s easier, though they don’t tell the entire story.

Pope Francis, who has been pontiff for just over a year, has already canonized 817 men and women, but 813 of them were martyrs from a single group of Italians who were beheaded by Ottoman Turks in the 15th Century.

Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII’s canonization is bringing attention to the complex process of becoming a saint

Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII’s canonization is bringing attention to the complex process of becoming a saint

John Paul II canonized 482 during the quarter-century he presided over the church, but more than 400 of those were from groups of martyrs, according to the Catholic World Report.

By contrast, Pope Benedict XVI added 45 saints during his pontificate.

Does every pope become a saint?

Yet, only about a third of all popes are saints, and it’s getting harder to make the leap the from St. Peter’s throne to sainthood, according to the Pew Research Center.

Fifty-two of the first 55 popes got the nod but that pace has slowed dramatically. Only five popes have become saints in the last 1,000 years, although that will now shoot up to seven. Four more popes who died between 1878 and 1978 are in the pipeline – Pius IX, Pius XII, Paul VI, and John Paul I – but John Paul II leapfrogged ahead of them.

Can sainthood be revoked?

Canonization is permanent but some saints have been, for lack of a better term, demoted – by being dropped from the Vatican’s list of official feast days, sometimes because of questions about whether they actually existed.

One notable example is Saint Philomena, who was recognized in 1835 after a tomb with a remains of a teenage girl was found in the Roman catacombs with the inscription “Filumena” and a symbol of martydom, according to the Times of London.

The Vatican suppressed her cult in 1960 after experts decided there was no evidence linking the bones in the tomb to the legend of a martyred Greek princess.

Saint Christopher, the patron of travelers, lost his standing in 1969 – although not his popular cachet if the number of medals hanging from rear-view mirrors in cars is any indication. St. George, the patron of warriors, was also bumped down that year but restored in 2001 without explanation.

Where can I find a list of all the saints?

The compendiums that exist are extensive, but not necessarily exhaustive. And you might want to brush up on your Latin.

The Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the bureaucratic arm of the church that shepherds candidates through the complex steps, published the Index ac Status Causarum in 1998 with the names of the blesseds and saints – but only for the previous 400 years.

An oft-cited reference is Butler’s Lives of the Saints, but that was written in the mid-18th century and only contains 2,500 biographies in its latest revision.

Then there is the Acta Santorum, an index based on feast days that has 68 volumes, the first of which was published in 1643. A cluster of scholarly Jesuit priests in Brussels, the Bollandists, is toiling to complete it in chronological order, using church records and old texts in myriad languages to verify that the saints deserve veneration.

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Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII are to be declared saints at an unprecedented open-air ceremony in Rome on Sunday.

A Mass co-celebrated by Pope Francis and his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict, will be witnessed by one million pilgrims and a vast TV and radio audience.

Nearly 100 foreign delegations are due, including royal dignitaries and heads of state and government.

It is the first time two popes have been canonized at the same time.

Correspondents say the move is being seen as an attempt to unite conservative and reformist camps within the Roman Catholic Church.

Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII are to be declared saints at an unprecedented open-air ceremony in Rome

Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII are to be declared saints at an unprecedented open-air ceremony in Rome

Pilgrims have been pouring into Rome and special bus, train and boat services ferried many more into the city early on Sunday morning for the two-hour ceremony which starts at 10:00 local.

Some had bagged places to sleep overnight as close as possible to St Peter’s Square, hoping to be among the first in when it opens to the public.

Giant screens have also been erected in nearby streets and elsewhere in the city for those unable to get into the square.

The Vatican confirmed on Saturday that 87-year-old Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI would make a rare public appearance alongside his successor, Pope Francis.

“He will co-celebrate, which does not mean he will go to the altar,” a Vatican spokesman said.

“We will all be happy to have him there.”

Benedict XVI became the first pope to resign for 600 years when he quit for health reasons a year ago, sending shock waves around the world.

The process of saint-making is usually long and very costly.

However, John Paul II, whose 26-year reign ended in 2005, has been fast-tracked to sainthood in just nine years.

Many among the huge crowds that gathered as he lay dying cried out “Santo subito!” (Make him a saint immediately!).

By contrast Italian-born John XXIII, known as the Good Pope after his 1958-1963 papacy, had his promotion to full sainthood decided suddenly and very recently by Pope Francis.

By canonizing both John XXIII – the pope who set off the reform movement – and John Paul II – the pope who applied the brakes – Pope Francis has skillfully deflected any possible criticism that he could be taking sides.

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Former Pope Benedict XVI defrocked nearly 400 priests in only two years over claims of child abuse, the Vatican has confirmed.

The statistics for 2011 and 2012 show a dramatic increase compared with previous years, according to a document obtained by the AP.

The file was part of Vatican data collected for a UN hearing on Thursday.

It was the first time the Holy See was publicly confronted over the abuse of children by clergy.

Church officials at the hearing in Geneva faced a barrage of hard questions covering why they were withholding data and what they were doing to prevent future abuse.

Victims’ advocates complained there was still too little transparency.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi initially said the AP report had been based on a mistaken reading of data.

But he later retracted his statement.

Former Pope Benedict XVI defrocked nearly 400 priests in only two years over claims of child abuse

Former Pope Benedict XVI defrocked nearly 400 priests in only two years over claims of child abuse

The latest statistics reveal the number of priests defrocked in 2011 and 2012 was more than double the 171 priests removed in 2008 and 2009, when the Vatican first provided figures.

The Vatican also sent another 400 cases to either be tried by a Church tribunal or to be dealt with administratively, AP reports.

Pope Benedict XVI, who was elected in 2005, took the helm as the scandal of child abuse by priests was breaking.

The flood of allegations, lawsuits and official reports into clerical abuse reached a peak in 2009 and 2010, which observers say may explain the spike shown in the document.

The Holy See is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a legally binding instrument which commits it to protecting and nurturing the most vulnerable in society.

It ratified the convention in 1990 but after an implementation report in 1994 it did not submit any progress reports until 2012, following revelations of child abuse in Europe and beyond.

Last month, the Vatican refused a request from the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child for data on abuse, on the grounds that it only released such information if requested to do so by another country as part of legal proceedings.

In a homily on Thursday, Pope Francis called abuse scandals “the shame of the Church”.

Pope Francis announced in December that a Vatican committee would be set up to fight abuse of children in the Church.

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According to the figures released by the Vatican, more than 6.6 million people attended the papal events presided by Pope Francis from his election in March to the end of 2013, compared to 2.3 million for former Pope Benedict in all of 2012.

The figures were based on the number of tickets issued for papal events where they are needed, such as general audiences, Masses and private audiences.

They were also based on estimates of the number of people at events where tickets are not needed, such as his weekly appearance from a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square.

The Vatican did not issue comparative figures on Thursday but figures released on January 4, 2013 showed that some 2.3 million people attended all events presided by Benedict in 2012.

Figures released last month which were limited to the number of people who attended weekly general audiences showed that Pope Francis had drawn around four times as many people in about 9 and a half months of 2013 than Pope Benedict had in all of 2012. Pope Francis was elected on March 13, 2013, after Pope Benedict’s resignation in February.

More than 6.6 million people attended the papal events presided by Pope Francis from his election in March to the end of 2013

More than 6.6 million people attended the papal events presided by Pope Francis from his election in March to the end of 2013

Pope Francis, who last month was named Person of the Year by Time Magazine, has drawn people to the Vatican because of his outgoing, simple and friendly style. Pope Benedict was more reserved and far less spontaneous.

The Vatican said the figures released on Thursday did not include the crowds that turned out to see the pope during his trips to Brazil, and to Assisi and Lampedusa in Italy.

More than 3 million people attended the pope’s final event of the Brazil trip on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro on July 28, 2013.

The crowds at Pope Francis’ general audiences and Sunday addresses have often topped 100,000, forcing police to close off the boulevard leading to the Vatican to accommodate more people.

Tickets to audiences and Masses are issued for free by the Vatican’s Prefecture of the Pontifical Household and usually distributed through parishes and Church institutions.

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Pope Francis has been named the best dressed man of 2013 by Esquire magazine.

According to CNN, the magazine admits this is an unconventional decision, but they look to Pope Francis’ simple style decisions as signaling new hope for the Catholic Church.

In the past, Pope Benedict XVI wore elaborate robes and a large golden cross.

Pope Francis has been named the best dressed man of 2013 by Esquire magazine

Pope Francis has been named the best dressed man of 2013 by Esquire magazine

Now, Pope Francis is making a statement with his simple garments and small iron cross.

Instead of fashion, Pope Francis has been trying to focus on the Catholic Church helping the marginalized, the disenfranchised and the poor.

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Pope Francis has been named “Man of the Year” by the latest Italian edition of Vanity Fair.

The Argentinean pontiff, elected in March 2013, had earned the accolade for his words and deeds during his first 100 days in office.

The front cover of Vanity Fair magazine shows Pope Francis, 76, wearing plain white robes and a white skull cap, waving at a crowd.

“His first one hundred days have already placed him in the category of world leaders who make history,” the magazine said.

“But the revolution continues.”

Pope Francis has been named “Man of the Year” by the latest Italian edition of Vanity Fair

Pope Francis has been named “Man of the Year” by the latest Italian edition of Vanity Fair

Five celebrities, including Sir Elton John and the Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli, were quoted by the magazine in praise of Francis, the first Jesuit Pope.

“Francis is a miracle of humility in an era of vanity,” Elton John told the magazine.

Elton John said he hoped that Pope Francis’s message would reach marginalized groups in society which “have a desperate need of his love”, including homosexuals.

“The Pope seems to want to take the Church back to the old values of Christ and, at the same time, bring it into the 21st century,” he said.

Elton John, who has been in a civil partnership since 2005, said he hoped Pope Francis could “reach out to children, women, men who live with HIV and AIDS – often alone, and hidden away in silence”. His praise for the Pope is perhaps surprising given the Vatican’s uncompromising stance on issues such as gay marriage, women priests and married male clergy.

While Pope Francis has adopted a much more relaxed, informal style than Pope Benedict XVI, he is regarded as being as much of a doctrinal conservative as his predecessor.

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Pope Francis is visiting the tiny island of Lampedusa, where instead of tooling around in the popemobile, he’s making his rounds in a borrowed 20-year-old Fiat Campagnola.

The pontiff also has let it be known how he feels about priests and nuns who drive fancy cars: It pains him. That has to be a kick in the pants for Dieter Zetsche, CEO of Mercedes-Benz, who just last week personally handed the pope the keys to a new Mercedes popemobile.

Pope Francis is visiting the tiny island of Lampedusa, where instead of tooling around in the popemobile, he's making his rounds in a borrowed 20-year-old Fiat Campagnola

Pope Francis is visiting the tiny island of Lampedusa, where instead of tooling around in the popemobile, he’s making his rounds in a borrowed 20-year-old Fiat Campagnola

Last Saturday, Pope Francis told a group of priests and nuns that cars “are necessary. But take a more humble one.” The pontiff said it “hurts” him when he sees a priest or nun in the “latest model car; you can’t do this.” He told his audience to drive a cheaper car and pass the savings on to feed starving children.

Mercedes has provided a number of popemobiles over the years, starting in 1930 with a Nurburg 460 pullman saloon for Pope Pius XI, according to the carmaker.

In a news release following his visit with Pope Francis, Dieter Zetsche said that “by providing the popemobile, we will continue to accompany” Pope Francis on “his travels in the future,” adding that the tradition was “a huge source of pride to us.”

Mercedes also provided for Pope Benedict XVI a popemobile in 2011 that had a built-in oxygen supply behind the bullet-proof plexiglas, a white leather seat with gold trim that was raised into place by a hydraulic lift and armor-plated side panels and undercarriage to withstand bomb blasts. According to the Telegraph, the cost was about $450,000.

But Pope Francis has deliberately shunned high-cost living in a Vatican guest house rather than the papal palace, for instance. Now, after his auto-buying advice for priests and nuns, he’s riding around in an old, borrowed Fiat for his first overseas mission as pontiff.

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Pope Francis said during his Sunday Angelus address to pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square that Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to resign was “a great example” of what it means to follow one’s conscience through prayer.

Following one’s conscience doesn’t mean chasing after one’s own self-interests; it calls for listening to God, understanding his will and carrying out his plan with determination, Pope Francis said.

Pope Benedict provided a “recent marvelous example” of following one’s conscience, Pope Francis said, evidently referring to the retired pontiff’s decision to leave office.

“Pope Benedict XVI gave us this great example when the Lord led him to understand, in prayer, what was the step he should take,” Pope Francis said.

“He followed, with a great sense of discernment and courage, his conscience, that is, the will of God, who spoke to his heart.”

References to the retired pope drew applause from the crowd, which Pope Francis urged on with encouraging gestures.

Pope Francis says Pope Benedict's decision to resign was a great example

Pope Francis says Pope Benedict’s decision to resign was a great example

Jesus provides many examples of how important it is to follow one’s conscience by “listening to his father’s voice in his heart and following it,” he said.

Jesus, who is God-made-man, had free will and wasn’t “remote-controlled” by God.

However, Jesus never made his decisions by himself; he was always “in full union” with God and obeyed him after listening carefully and closely to his will, Pope Francis said.

Because he acted after careful consideration “together with his father” and in line with the truth, Jesus was able to be decisive and sure, and “found the strength and light for his journey.”

“We, too, have to learn to listen to our conscience more,” Pope Francis said.

“But be careful: This doesn’t mean following oneself, doing what interests me, what’s worthwhile for me, what I like,” he said.

The conscience is “listening to the truth, to the good, listening to God” and this is fostered by having a close relationship with God, “who speaks to my heart and helps me to discern, understand the path I have to take.”

God also helps people “go forward and be faithful” once they have made their decision, Pope Francis said.

Pope Francis has acknowledged the existence of a “gay lobby” inside the Vatican.

The pontiff also said there was a “stream of corruption”, according to reports in Catholic media.

Pope Francis is said to have made the remarks during a private meeting with a group of Latin American Catholic clerics.

The clerics wrote up a report of the conversation that then appeared on the Chilean website Reflection and Liberation.

According to the report, Pope Francis was extremely open as he discussed problems at the Vatican.

He is said to have told the Latin American delegation that there were good, holy men in the administration, but that there was also corruption.

The Vatican would have to “see what we can do” about the “gay lobby” operating in the bureaucracy, he said.

Pope Francis has acknowledged the existence of a "gay lobby" inside the Vatican

Pope Francis has acknowledged the existence of a “gay lobby” inside the Vatican

“It is true, it is there,” the report quotes Pope Francis as saying.

In the days leading up to Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation in February, the Italian media carried many un-sourced reports that gay Vatican clergymen had been working together to advance their personal interests, leaving the Holy See vulnerable to blackmail.

There were even suggestions that the situation had influenced Benedict’s decision to resign.

At the time, the Vatican vigorously denied all the rumors.

It has so far declined to make any comment regarding the Pope’s reported remarks, other than that the audience with the Latin American clerics was private.

An organization representing the clerics, known by its Spanish acronym CLAR, has said it has apologized to the Pope for the publication of the report.

CLAR said in a statement that it “deeply regretted the publication of a text which refers to the conversation with the Holy Father”.

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Italy’s Rai TV broadcast for the first time images of the Turin Shroud, which is revered by many Christians as the burial cloth of Jesus Christ.

The linen cloth bears a faint brownish image of what appears to be a man’s body.

A smartphone app was also created to show digital images of the Turin Shroud.

Pope Francis contributed a message to the broadcast, shortly before he was to celebrate his first Easter vigil.

Italy's Rai TV broadcast for the first time images of the Turin Shroud

Italy’s Rai TV broadcast for the first time images of the Turin Shroud

The newly-elected Pope will preside over a vigil at St Peter’s Basilica on Saturday evening – ahead of the main Easter Sunday celebrations.

Thousands of people from all over the world are expected at Sunday’s Mass.

Viewers were able to watch live images of the 1.21 x 4.42 m Turin Shroud in a 90-minute programme on Rai TV from Turin Cathedral.

The images were also streamed on various websites.

In a video message ahead of the exhibition, Pope Francis said: “It speaks to our heart.”

The Pope described the cloth as an “icon” or an image but was careful not to authenticate as a genuine relic.

His predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict, also recorded a video message.

The shroud has never been officially recognized as authentic by the Vatican.

Rigorous scientific testing seems to indicate that the Turin Shroud was woven between 700 and 800 years ago.

But diehard believers say other tests prove that it could have been made at the time of the crucifixion – give or take a couple of hundred years.

The only previous – recorded – TV broadcast of the shroud was in 1973. It was last shown to the general public three years ago when Pope Benedict XVI travelled to Turin to view it.

The Shroud has been kept in the northern Italian city for more than four centuries.

It was taken there by members of the former Italian and French royal house of Savoy who originally acquired it in France in the belief that it had been brought to Europe by returning Crusaders.

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Black smoke has poured from Sistine Chapel chimney, signaling that the second and third votes in the Papal election have been inconclusive.

Cardinals have been meeting for a second day to choose a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, who resigned last month.

The 115 electors are shut off in Vatican’s Sistine Chapel and a nearby residence until two-thirds agree on a leader for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

Further votes will be held this afternoon.

Starting with today, the cardinals will vote four times daily until a single candidate garners a two-thirds majority, at which point the smoke coming from the Sistine Chapel chimney will be white.

Before the conclave began there was no clear frontrunner to replace Pope Benedict.

Black smoke has poured from Sistine Chapel chimney, signaling that the second and third votes in the Papal election have been inconclusive

Black smoke has poured from Sistine Chapel chimney, signaling that the second and third votes in the Papal election have been inconclusive

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Cardinals are beginning their second day of deliberations in the Vatican conclave to elect a new pope, after an indecisive vote on Tuesday.

The 115 cardinal-electors are shut off in the Sistine Chapel and a nearby residence until two-thirds agree on a leader for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

Black smoke signaling an inconclusive first vote drew cheers from crowds in St Peter’s Square on Tuesday evening.

There is no clear frontrunner to replace Pope Benedict XVI.

The cardinals will vote four times daily until a single candidate garners enough support – at which point the smoke coming from the Sistine Chapel chimney will be white.

After celebrating Mass this morning, they returned to the Sistine Chapel to resume voting.

They can vote twice in the morning. If those ballots are inconclusive, black smoke will once again rise from the chimney and the election will resume after lunch.

Voting takes place in silence, with no formal debate, until a decision is reached. If that does not happen after three days, there may be a pause for prayer and informal discussion for a maximum of one day.

Crowds who had braved rain and storms to watch the cardinals go into the conclave on big screens in St Peter’s Square cheered as the black smoke appeared at 19:41 on Tuesday.

“I thought it was going to be white, because they were late. I thought it was going to be white, but I was wrong,” said Paolo Paparini, a 76-year-old man waiting faithfully among the crowd told the Associated Press news agency.

“Without a pope I feel bereft, like an orphan. I pray to give the cardinals the strength to choose the right man to lead the Church,” French priest Guillaume Le Floch told the Agence France-Presse news agency.

“It cannot be an easy decision, but the Church needs a great leader now more than ever. The cardinals have a chance to astonish us,” he said.

Cardinals are beginning their second day of deliberations in the Vatican conclave to elect a new pope, after an indecisive vote on Tuesday

Cardinals are beginning their second day of deliberations in the Vatican conclave to elect a new pope, after an indecisive vote on Tuesday

At one point feminist activists from the Ukrainian Femen group set off flares of pink smoke in the square to highlight what their website calls “the bloody violent history of Christianity” and the group’s “determination to combat sexism of religion”.

The topless protesters were dragged away by police.

From now on the cardinals – all under 80, as those over 80 are excluded – will eat, vote and sleep in closed-off areas until a new pope is chosen.

Jamming devices in the Sistine Chapel should block all electronic communication and anyone tweeting would in any case risk being excommunicated.

Papal conclave timetable – second day:

  • 09:30 – Prayer followed by voting in the Sistine Chapel. Black smoke will emerge if two morning ballots are inconclusive. White smoke will appear as soon as there is a positive outcome
  • Smoke could come any time between about 10:30 and 12:30
  • 12:30 – If no pope is elected, cardinals go back to their residence for lunch
  • 16:00 – Cardinals return to the Sistine Chapel for another two rounds of voting – smoke expected between 17:30 and 19:30
  • If there is no result by Friday, they will hold a day of prayer and reflection on Saturday before resuming the election

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Firefighters have fitted a chimney on top of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican ahead of the conclave which will elect a new pope.

The election of a new pope will be marked by white smoke appearing from the chimney.

Roman Catholic cardinals will begin electing a new pope on March 12.

Pope Benedict XVI stepped down last month after nearly eight years in office, becoming the first pontiff to resign in 600 years.

The vote will be preceded by Mass on Tuesday morning, with the first ballot due in the afternoon, the Vatican press office has said.

The first smoke will drift out of the chapel’s rust-colored chimney early that evening, after the first vote is taken. It is likely to be black – meaning no Pope – as no frontrunner has emerged in the five days of general discussions so far among the 115 cardinals.

From Wednesday, two votes will be held each morning and afternoon – with ballots burned after each session at about 12:00 and 18:00 – until one candidate attains 77 votes – a two-thirds majority. And then the smoke will be white.

Other preparations have been taking place at the Sistine Chapel this week.

Firefighters have fitted a chimney on top of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican ahead of the conclave which will elect a new pope

Firefighters have fitted a chimney on top of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican ahead of the conclave which will elect a new pope

Two stoves that will produce the white smoke from burnt ballot papers have been fitted in the chapel.

Tables and seating have been set under Michelangelo’s frescoed ceiling for the cardinals – and special technology has been installed to jam any mobile phones or other devices which could breach the strict secrecy of the process.

Correspondents say no one candidate stands out as Benedict XVI’s likely successor.

The last election in 2005 took two days, and correspondents say the number of meetings this time is being seen as a reflection of the many challenges facing the Church.

Despite the vows of secrecy, Italian newspapers have been publishing what they say are leaked details of debate among cardinals on problems faced by the Church.

Reform of the Vatican’s bureaucracy – known as the Curia – and the Vatican bank have both been on the agenda, the reports say.

Last year, European regulators said the bank was not doing enough to combat money laundering, while intrigue in the Vatican was revealed by documents leaked by Pope Benedict’s butler.

During Benedict’s reign, the Catholic Church was wracked by a worldwide scandal over the sexual abuse of children by priests.

There are also tensions between traditionalists and reformers over issues including priestly celibacy, gay rights and the role of women.

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Vatican announced today that Roman Catholic cardinals will begin electing a new pope on March 12 as 115 cardinals gathered for talks.

Pope Benedict XVI, 85, stepped down last month after nearly eight years in office, becoming the first pontiff to resign in 600 years.

The pontiff blamed his failing health for his inability to carry on.

Under the rules of the secret ballot, or conclave, cardinals will vote until one achieves a two-thirds majority.

Correspondents say no one candidate stands out as Benedict XVI’s likely successor.

The vote will be preceded by Mass on Tuesday morning, with the first ballot due in the afternoon, the Vatican press office said.

Roman Catholic cardinals will begin electing a new pope on March 12

Roman Catholic cardinals will begin electing a new pope on March 12

Vatican staff has been preparing the Sistine Chapel, where the conclave will take place, installing the two stoves that will produce white smoke from burnt ballot papers when a new pope is elected.

The last election in 2005 took three days, and correspondents say the number of meetings this time is being seen as a reflection of the many challenges facing the Church.

Despite the vows of secrecy, Italian newspapers have been publishing what they say are leaked details of debate among cardinals on problems faced by the Church.

Reform of the Vatican’s bureaucracy – known as the Curia – and the Vatican bank have both been on the agenda, the reports say.

Last year, European regulators said the bank was not doing enough to combat money laundering, while intrigue in the Vatican was revealed by documents leaked by Pope Benedict’s butler.

US Cardinal Timothy Dolan wrote on a blog that most of the discussions covered preaching and teaching the Catholic faith, tending to Catholic schools and hospitals, protecting families and the unborn, and supporting and recruiting priests.

“Those are the <<big issues>>,” he wrote.

“You may find that hard to believe, since the ‘word on the street’ is that all we talk about is corruption in the Vatican, sexual abuse, money. Do these topics come up? Yes! Do they dominate? No!”

During Benedict’s reign the Catholic Church was wracked by a worldwide scandal over the sexual abuse of children by priests.

There are also tensions between traditionalists and reformers over issues including priestly celibacy, gay rights and the role of women.

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Roman Catholic cardinals from around the world are due to meet in Rome to begin the process of electing the next Pope.

The College of Cardinals will hold daily talks leading up to a conclave in which a new Pope will be chosen.

The election process comes after Pope Benedict XVI stepped down after nearly eight years in office leading the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.

Pope Benedict XVI was the first pontiff to resign in 600 years.

The first pre-conclave meeting on Monday morning is to be headed by the dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano.

Cardinals – known as the “princes” of the Church – will discuss future challenges to the Church and discreetly weigh up possible papal candidates.

The conclave – to be held in the Sistine Chapel – is expected to take place next week.

Correspondents say the 115 cardinal electors, those under the age of 80 who will take part in the conclave, will want the new Pope to be officially installed in time to preside over Holy Week.

Roman Catholic cardinals from around the world are due to meet in Rome to begin the process of electing the next Pope

Roman Catholic cardinals from around the world are due to meet in Rome to begin the process of electing the next Pope

Ceremonies start with Palm Sunday on March 24 and culminate in Easter the following Sunday.

Strict precautions against leaks of unauthorized information will be in operation at the Vatican until the next Pope has been chosen.

Technicians will debug the cardinals’ lodgings and mobile phones will be banned altogether during the conclave.

Britain’s formerly most senior Roman Catholic cleric, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, has said he will not take part in the conclave after standing down amid allegations of improper behavior.

On Sunday, Cardinal Keith O’Brien admitted his sexual conduct had at times “fallen beneath the standards expected of me”.

He apologized and asked forgiveness from those whom he had “offended”.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien resigned as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh last Monday after three priests and a former priest made allegations against him dating back to the 1980s.

Benedict, 85, officially ceased to be the Pope at 20:00 local time on Friday.

He left the Vatican in a motorcade before being flown by helicopter to the papal retreat at Castel Gandolfo, near Rome.

The German pontiff, who was born Joseph Ratzinger, will continue to be known as Benedict XVI, with the new title of “pope emeritus”.

He is expected to retire to a monastery on a hill inside Vatican City. Officials say he will not be able to intervene publicly in the next papacy although he may offer advice.

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Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation today is forcing the Vatican to consider some unusual questions.

Here are 10 answers:

1. Name and title. He will be known as Pope emeritus, or Roman pontiff emeritus, the Vatican announced on Tuesday. He will also continue to be known by his papal title of Benedict XVI, rather than reverting to Joseph Ratzinger, and he will continue to be addressed as “Your Holiness” Benedict XVI – in the same way, for example, as US presidents continue to be referred to as “president” after leaving office. “Emeritus” is a Latin word meaning “retired”, from the verb “emereri” – to earn one’s discharge by service.

2. New home. Benedict XVI will leave the Vatican by helicopter before he resigns at 20:00 on Thursday, but he will return in about three months to a new residence – a former convent known as Mater Ecclesiae – in the south-west corner of Vatican City. Reports suggest Vatican gardeners will continue to cultivate a 500 sq m organic fruit and vegetable garden there – the Pope is said to enjoy marmalade made from its oranges. Meanwhile – as Mater Ecclesiae is refurbished – he will stay in the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome.

3. His clothing. The Pope emeritus will continue to wear papal white – rather than the black of an ordinary priest, or the red of a cardinal. However it will be a simple cassock, with none of the flamboyant hats and vestments he revived during his papacy (prompting the Wall Street Journal to ask “Does the Pope Wear Prada?”) He will be giving up his trademark red shoes, wearing instead brown shoes handmade for him by Mexican craftsmen during a visit to the country last year.

4. His ring The papal gold ring, known as the fisherman’s ring, will be smashed with a specially designed silver hammer when the Pope leaves office. No change here from normal practice. “Objects strictly tied to the ministry of St Peter must be destroyed,” the Vatican says. His personal seal will also be defaced.

Pope Benedict XVI's resigned starting with February 28

Pope Benedict XVI’s resigned starting with February 28

5. His duties. Benedict XVI will have no further administrative or official duties. He will not participate in the conclave to elect his successor (nor will any cardinal over the age of 80), though, since he appointed 67 of the 115 men who will take part in the conclave, his influence will be felt. Senior Catholics have also been re-reading speeches made by Benedict XVI before of his retirement for any hints about the qualities he believes his successor will require.

6. Life in retirement. Announcing his resignation, the Pope said he would spend his time praying for the Church. His elder brother, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, has also said Benedict would be happy to advise his successor, if required. Writing and studying also seems likely to be on the agenda – Benedict had a library of 20,000 books installed in the papal apartments when he was elected in 2005. He also enjoys playing the piano and watching old black-and-white comedies – and he loves cats. At least one, Contessina, is known to live at Mater Ecclesiae.

7. Social media. The Pope’s Twitter accounts (@Pontifex and its eight different language versions) will go into hibernation when Benedict XVI steps down. He is expected to utter his final tweets along with his final general audience on Wednesday and before he departs the Vatican on Thursday – saying goodbye to the 2.5 million followers he has gained since opening his account late last year. Whether he will take the papal iPad on the helicopter is an open question. During the “interregnum” – the period between two popes – Vatican updates will be distributed from the Secretariat of State’s account @TerzaLoggia.

8. Golden parachute. Modest as Benedict XVI’s retirement plans may be, as a bishop he will retain the Vatican’s generous private healthcare policy and is likely to have recourse to the doctors who currently manage his medical treatment. It’s possible he will continue to be cared for by the small group of German nuns who have looked after him during his papacy. As a pope has not retired for 600 years, there’s no precedent for a papal pension plan, but Canon law requires each diocese to look after the welfare of retiring clerics. Rome will doubtless take good care of its Pope emeritus.

9. Georg Ganswein. Benedict XVI’s personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Ganswein – the photogenic face seen in the background of a million photographs – will stay in this post. However, he will also keep up his role as head of the papal household for Benedict’s successor. He will be the servant of two masters.

10. Infallibility. It’s a widely held misconception the Pope is infallible in everything he says and does. In fact, the First Vatican Council of 1870 ruled a Pope’s rulings are infallible only when they are made “ex-cathedra” – as part of a doctrinal statement about the Church. Benedict XVI never invoked this privilege (and in fact only one infallible statement has been made since 1870). When he resigns as Pope he will no longer be able to make ex-cathedra statements.

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Pope Benedict XVI has officially resigned today, saying that he now “will simply be a pilgrim” starting his last journey on earth.

The pontiff, aged 86, was earlier flown by helicopter from the Vatican to his retreat at Castel Gandolfo, near Rome.

His deputy, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, is now in charge of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics until a new pope is elected next month.

Benedict vowed “unconditional obedience and reverence” to his successor.

He stepped down after nearly eight years in office – the first pontiff to do so in 600 years.

Benedict officially ceased to be the Pope at 20:00 local time.

The resignation was marked by the papal Swiss Guards stepping down from their posts at Castel Gandolfo to return to the Vatican. The protection of Benedict was taken over by Italian police.

In his retirement, Benedict will wear a simple white cassock rather than his papal clothes, and swap his famous red shoes – the color is symbolic of the blood of the early Christian martyrs – for brown.

His “Fisherman’s Ring”, the special signet ring which contains the Pope’s name and is impressed to validate certain official documents, is expected to be destroyed along with the lead seal of the pontificate.

The German pontiff, who was born Joseph Ratzinger, will continue to be known as Benedict XVI, with the new title of “pope emeritus”.

The long-time theologian is expected eventually to retire to a monastery on a hill inside Vatican City, with officials saying he will not be able intervene publicly in the papacy of his
successor, though he may offer advice.

Pope Benedict XVI has officially resigned today, saying that he now "will simply be a pilgrim" starting his last journey on earth

Pope Benedict XVI has officially resigned today, saying that he now “will simply be a pilgrim” starting his last journey on earth

The conclave of 115 cardinals is expected to meet at the Vatican on Monday morning to start planning the election of the next pope.

Earlier on Thursday, bells of St Peter’s rang across the Vatican as Benedict boarded the helicopter for a short flight to Castel Gandolfo.

Before that, the pontiff was greeted for the last time by top officials in the Curia – the administrative body that runs the Holy See.

Benedict then appeared at a window overlooking the public square in Castel Gandolfo to bless a cheering crowd.

“Thank you very much for your friendship,” Benedict said.

“I will simply be a pilgrim who is starting the last phase of his pilgrimage on this earth.

“Let’s go forward with God for the good of the Church and the world.”

Some in the crowd were in tears listening to what could be Benedict’s final public words as pope.

In his final tweet, Benedict wrote: “Thank you for your love and support. May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the centre of your lives.”

The Vatican now enters the Sede Vacante – or period of transition between two pontificates.

Benedict’s successor must focus on reforming the Vatican bureaucracy which has often been overly hesitant to react to the various crises which have arisen during Benedict’s papacy.

On Thursday morning, the Pope received the cardinals at the Vatican’s Clementine Hall, warmly embracing Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who passed on best wishes on behalf of those gathered.

“Among you there is also the future pope to whom I promise my unconditional obedience and reverence,” the pontiff said.

“The Church is a living being,” he added, but it “also remains always the same”.

In his public farewell speech on Wednesday, Benedict hinted at Vatican infighting.

His decision to resign has been openly criticized by Australia’s top Catholic, Cardinal George Pell, who questioned his leadership skills.

The Church has been beset by scandals over sexual abuse by priests and leaked confidential documents revealing internal corruption and feuding.

An estimated 150,000 people packed into St Peter’s Square on Wednesday to hear Benedict speak in his last address there.

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Pope Benedict XVI has vowed “unconditional obedience and reverence” to his successor.

The pontiff was speaking on his final day in office at the Vatican to his cardinals, one of whom will be elected next month to replace him.

Pope Benedict, 85, will leave for the papal retreat at Castel Gandolfo, near Rome, later on Thursday.

His deputy, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, will have temporary charge of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.

In his public farewell speech on Wednesday, Pope Benedict hinted at Vatican infighting.

His decision to resign has been openly criticized by Australia’s top Catholic, Cardinal George Pell, who questioned his leadership skills.

The Church has been beset by scandals over sexual abuse by priests and leaked confidential documents revealing internal corruption and feuding.

An estimated 150,000 people packed into St Peter’s Square on Wednesday to hear Pope Benedict, resigning at 85 after seven years in office.

The long-time theologian is expected eventually to retire to a monastery on a hill inside Vatican City, with officials saying he will not be able intervene publicly in the papacy of his successor, though he may offer advice.

His successor must focus on reforming the Vatican bureaucracy, which has often been overly hesitant to react to the various crises which have arisen during Benedict’s papacy.

Pope Benedict received cardinals for a farewell ceremony on Thursday morning, warmly embracing Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who passed on best wishes on behalf of those gathered.

“Among you there is also the future pope to whom I promise my unconditional obedience and reverence,” the pontiff told those assembled.

“The Church is a living being,” he added, but it “also remains always the same”.

He is later due to say goodbye to his staff before being taken to a helipad for the 15-minute flight to Castel Gandolfo.

The residence, 15 miles (24 km) south-east of the Italian capital, is the traditional summer home of the popes.

Pope Benedict XVI has vowed "unconditional obedience and reverence" to his successor

Pope Benedict XVI has vowed “unconditional obedience and reverence” to his successor

At 20:00 local time, Benedict will cease to be pope, a moment which will be marked symbolically when the Swiss Guards at the gate of Castel Gandolfo march off for their return to the Vatican.

The German pontiff, who was born Joseph Ratzinger, will continue to be known as Benedict XVI, with the new title of “pope emeritus”.

In his retirement, he will wear a simple white cassock rather than his papal clothes and swap his famous red shoes – the color is symbolic of the blood of the early Christian martyrs – for brown.

His “Fisherman’s Ring”, the special signet ring which contains the Pope’s name and is impressed to validate certain official documents, is expected to be destroyed along with the lead seal of the pontificate.

Addressing the crowd in St Peter’s Square on Wednesday, Pope Benedict thanked believers for respecting his decision to retire and said he was standing down for the good of the Church.

“There were moments of joy and light but also moments that were not easy,” he told the crowd.

“There were moments, as there were throughout the history of the Church, when the seas were rough and the wind blew against us and it seemed that the Lord was sleeping.”

Speaking from Rome, Cardinal George Pell told a TV channel that while Benedict was a “brilliant teacher”, “government wasn’t his strong point”.

“I think I prefer somebody who can lead the Church and pull it together a bit,” he told the Seven Network.

The first resignation of a pope since the Middle Ages, he suggested, had set a worrying precedent for the Church: “People who, for example, might disagree with a future pope will mount a campaign to get him to resign.”

Cardinal George Pell, 71, is among the 115 cardinal-electors (those younger than 80 years old) eligible to vote for the new pope, and theoretically could be chosen himself, though he has played down the possibility.

From March 4, the cardinals will meet for talks at which they will set a date for the start of the secret election, or conclave.

A two-thirds-plus-one vote majority is required. Sixty-seven of the electors were appointed by Benedict XVI, and the remainder by his predecessor John Paul II.

About half the cardinal-electors (60) are European – 21 of them Italian – and many have worked for the administrative body of the Church, the Curia, in Rome.

Events on Thursday:

  • About 16:15: Benedict is driven to a helipad within the Vatican
  • About 17:00: Papal helicopter flies to Castel Gandolfo near Rome
  • About 18:00: Pope appears at a window overlooking the public square in Castel Gandolfo to bless a crowd
  • About 20:00: Benedict ceases to be pope; Swiss guards at the entrance to Castel Gandolfo leave their posts

Thousands of pilgrims gathered in St Peter’s Square in the Vatican for Pope Benedict XVI’s final general audience.

The Pope has admitted he faced “choppy waters” during his eight years at the helm of the Roman Catholic Church, but says he was guided by God and felt his presence every day.

Pope Benedict XVI, 85, will retire on Thursday – the first pope to abdicate since Gregory XII in 1415.

His successor will be chosen in a conclave to take place in March.

Pope Benedict told the crowd his papacy had been “a heavy burden” but he accepted it because he was sure that God would guide him.

At times he “felt like St Peter with his apostles on the Lake of Galilee”, he said, making reference to the Biblical story when the disciples were battling against heavy waves and Jesus Christ appeared to them.

The Church has been beset by scandals over sexual abuse by priests and leaked confidential documents revealing corruption and infighting in the Vatican.

Pope Benedict thanked his flock for respecting his decision to retire and said he was standing down for the good of the Church.

“I took this step [resignation] in full awareness of its gravity and novelty but with profound serenity of spirit,” he said in his address.

As a result of his surprise announcement, the Church has now amended its laws to bring forward the election of a successor.

A conclave beginning in mid-March would have left little time to have a new pope installed for one of the most important periods in the Catholic calendar, Holy Week, leading up to Easter, which begins on March 24.

Thousands of pilgrims gathered in St Peter's Square in the Vatican for Pope Benedict XVI's final general audience

Thousands of pilgrims gathered in St Peter’s Square in the Vatican for Pope Benedict XVI’s final general audience

On Thursday the Pope will travel by helicopter to his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, about 15 miles south-east of Rome. He will cease to be Pope at 20:00 local time.

After Benedict XVI steps down, he will become known as “pope emeritus”.

He will retain the honorific “His Holiness” after his abdication and will continue to be known by his papal title of Benedict XVI, rather than reverting to Joseph Ratzinger.

He will wear his distinctive white cassock without any cape or trimmings, but will surrender his gold ring of office and his personal seal will be destroyed.

He will also give up wearing his red shoes.

“On the one hand I felt that since the decision that he would leave office and resign became public, Pope Benedict is relieved,” said the head of the German bishops’ conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch.

“But he also now feels the sympathy of the people for him, and therefore he will have a sense of melancholy and nostalgia, a bit of sadness.”

The title “emeritus” is used when a person of status, such as a professor or bishop, hands over their position, so their former rank can be retained in their title.

The Pope is to spend his final hours at his Vatican residence saying farewell to the cardinals who have been his closest aides during his eight-year pontificate.

His personal archive of documents will be packed up and, at 20:00 on Thursday, the Swiss Guard on duty at his Castel Gandolfo residence will be dismissed, to be replaced by Vatican police.

This will mark the formal end of his papacy and the beginning of the period of transition to his successor, due to be chosen next month.

From March 4, the College of Cardinals will meet in general congregations to discuss the problems facing the Church and set a date for the start of the secret election, or conclave, to elect Pope Benedict’s successor.

That successor will be chosen by 115 cardinal-electors (those younger than 80 years old) through ballots held in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.

A two-thirds-plus-one vote majority is required. Sixty-seven of the electors were appointed by Benedict XVI, and the remainder by his predecessor John Paul II.

About half the cardinal-electors (60) are European – 21 of them Italian – and many have worked for the administrative body of the Church, the Curia, in Rome.

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Vatican officials announced today that Pope Benedict XVI will be known as “pope emeritus” and will retain the honorific “His Holiness” after he abdicates on Thursday.

He will also continue to be known by his papal title of Benedict XVI, rather than reverting to Josef Ratzinger.

Pope Benedict will wear his distinctive white cassock without any cape or trimmings.

He will surrender his gold ring of office, known as the fisherman’s ring, and his personal seal will be destroyed in the same way as when a pope dies.

Benedict XVI will also give up wearing his specially-made red leather loafers, instead wearing brown shoes hand made for him by a Mexican craftsman during a brief visit to Mexico last year, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said on Tuesday.

His resignation is the first by a pope for some 600 years.

The title “emeritus” is used when a person of status, such as a professor or bishop, hands over their position so their former rank can be retained in their title.

The Pope is to spend his final hours at his Vatican residence saying farewell to the cardinals who have been his closest aides during his eight-year pontificate.

His personal archive of documents will be packed up and, at 20:00 on Thursday, the Swiss Guard on duty at his Castel Gandolfo residence will be dismissed, to be replaced by Vatican police.

Vatican officials announced today that Pope Benedict XVI will be known as "pope emeritus" and will retain the honorific "His Holiness" after he abdicates on Thursday

Vatican officials announced today that Pope Benedict XVI will be known as “pope emeritus” and will retain the honorific “His Holiness” after he abdicates on Thursday

This will mark the formal end of his papacy and the beginning of the period of transition to his successor, due to be chosen next month.

From March 4, the College of Cardinals will meet in general congregations to discuss the problems facing the Church and set a date for the start of the secret election – or conclave to elect Pope Benedict’s successor.

That successor will be chosen by 115 cardinal-electors (those younger than 80 years old) through ballots held in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.

A two-thirds-plus-one vote majority is required. Sixty-seven of the electors were appointed by Benedict XVI, and the remainder by his predecessor John Paul II.

About half the cardinal-electors (60) are European – 21 of those being Italian – and many have worked for the administrative body of the Church, the Curia, in Rome.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic cleric, is stepping down as leader of the Scottish Catholic Church.

The move follows allegations – which he contests – of inappropriate behavior towards priests dating from the 1980s.

In a statement, Cardinal Keith O’Brien apologized to those he had offended during his ministry.

The cardinal confirmed he would not take part in the election for a successor to Pope Benedict XVI – leaving Britain unrepresented in the election.

The Vatican confirmed that the cardinal has stepped down from his post.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien said in his statement he had already tendered his resignation as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, due to take effect when he turned 75 next month, but Pope Benedict “has now decided that my resignation will take effect today”.

He said the pontiff would appoint an apostolic administrator to govern the archdiocese in his place until his successor is appointed.

The cardinal also said: “I have valued the opportunity of serving the people of Scotland and overseas in various ways since becoming a priest.

“Looking back over my years of ministry: For any good I have been able to do, I thank God. For any failures, I apologize to all whom I have offended.

“I do not wish media attention in Rome to be focused on me – but rather on Pope Benedict XVI and on his successor.

“However, I will pray with them and for them that, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, they will make the correct choice for the future good of the Church.”

Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s role as Britain’s only representative in the papal election next month would have been one of his last acts before he retired.

The Observer reported that the three priests and one former priest – from the diocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh – complained to the Pope’s representative to Britain, nuncio Antonio Mennini, in the week before February 11, when Pope Benedict announced his resignation, of what they claimed was the cardinal’s inappropriate behavior towards them in the 1980s.

Cardinal Keith O'Brien, Britain's most senior Roman Catholic cleric, is stepping down as leader of the Scottish Catholic Church

Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic cleric, is stepping down as leader of the Scottish Catholic Church

The former priest claims Cardinal Keith O’Brien made an inappropriate approach to him in 1980, after night prayers, when he was a seminarian at St Andrew’s College, Drygrange.

The complainant says he resigned as a priest when Cardinal Keith O’Brien was first made a bishop.

A second statement from another complainant says he was living in a parish when he was visited by Keith O’Brien, and inappropriate contact took place between them.

A third complainant alleges dealing with what he describes as “unwanted behavior” by the cardinal in the 1980s after some late-night drinking.

And the fourth complainant claims the cardinal used night prayers as an excuse for inappropriate contact.

Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond said: “It would be a great pity if a lifetime of positive work was lost from comment in the circumstances of his resignation.

“None of us know the outcome of the investigation into the claims made against him but I have found him to be a good man for his church and country.”

Jack Valero, from Catholic Voices, a media lobby group that represents many Catholics in the UK, says the allegations against the cardinal have been handled properly.

“I think it’s right that he’s resigned, faced with these allegations.

“I am very happy that they have been taken seriously, that the nuncio – who is the Pope’s representative in the UK – has written to the four people who have made the allegations to thank them for speaking out, and that the whole thing has been done so quickly. I think this shows a new spirit.”

Colin MacFarlane, director of gay rights group Stonewall Scotland, which last year named the cardinal as Bigot of the Year said: “We trust there will be a full investigation into the serious allegations made against Cardinal Keith O’Brien.

“We hope that his successor will show a little more Christian charity towards openly gay people than the cardinal did himself.”

Clifford Longley, a religious commentator and columnist for the Catholic newspaper The Tablet, said the cardinal’s resignation was “devastating”.

“The worst thing that could possibly have happened to the church at this moment is to have another row like this when there already so many going on,” he said.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien missed celebrating Sunday Mass in St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh, which marked Pope Benedict’s eight years in office, ahead of the pontiff stepping down this week.

Last week Cardinal Keith O’Brien said he believed priests should be able to marry if they wished to do so, saying the new Pope could consider whether the Roman Catholic Church should change its stance on some issues not of divine origin.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien:

  • Born on 17 March 1938 in Ballycastle, County Antrim, Northern Ireland
  • Ordained a priest on 3 April 1965
  • Obtained a bachelor of science degree in chemistry and mathematics from the University of Edinburgh and a diploma in education
  • Employed by Fife County Council as a teacher of mathematics and science from 1966 to 1971
  • Also served as assistant parish priest and as chaplain of St Columba Secondary School in Cowdenbeath
  • Spiritual director of St Andrew’s College in Drygrange from 1978 to 1980
  • Rector of St Mary’ College, Blairs, Aberdeen from 1980 to 1985
  • Ordained Archbishop of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh in 1985
  • President of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland March 2002 until 2012
  • Proclaimed Cardinal by John Paul II on 21 October 2003
  • Was due to retire after he turned 75 on 17 March
  • Retirement accepted by Pope Benedict on 25 February

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Vatican has announced that Pope Benedict XVI has amended Roman Catholic Church law so that the conclave selecting his successor can be brought forward.

The change to the constitution means cardinals will no longer have to wait 15 days after the papacy becomes vacant before beginning the conclave.

As a result, the conclave can now start before March 15.

Pope Benedict’s resignation, the first by a pope in nearly 600 years, takes effect on Thursday, February 28.

His decision surprised many within the Catholic Church.

“I leave the College of Cardinals the possibility to bring forward the start of the conclave once all cardinals are present, or push the beginning of the election back by a few days should there be serious reasons,” the Pope said in a statement read by his spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi.

Vatican officials explained that the change was partly due to the fact that the church constitution was written principally for a conclave following the death of a pope, rather than a resignation.

The decision on the date of the beginning of the conclave will be taken by the cardinals but will not happen earlier than March 1st, officials said.

A conclave beginning in mid-March would have left little time to have a new pope installed for one of the most important periods in the Catholic calendar, as Easter Holy Week begins on March 24.

Pope Benedict XVI has amended Roman Catholic Church law so that the conclave selecting his successor can be brought forward

Pope Benedict XVI has amended Roman Catholic Church law so that the conclave selecting his successor can be brought forward

The news about the timing of the conclave comes as the Pope accepted the resignation of the Roman Catholic Church’s highest cleric in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O’Brien.

It follows allegations – which he contests – of inappropriate behavior towards priests dating from the 1980s.

Vatican officials said that his Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s resignation was linked to the fact that he was approaching his 75th birthday and the Pope was keen to accept resignations and get business going ahead of his own resignation taking effect.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien has confirmed he will not take part in the conclave to elect Benedict’s successor.

Vatican officials said that no decision had been yet taken on how the Pope should be referred to during the period between popes.

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Pope Benedict XVI has given his final Sunday blessing at the Vatican before he steps down on February 28.

In his last Angelus in St Peter’s Square, the Pope told thousands of cheering pilgrims his decision did not mean he was abandoning the Church.

Pope Benedict, 85, announced his resignation last week, saying ill-health meant he could not continue.

Cardinals are gathering to choose the next pope amid fears Church sex abuse scandals may overshadow the process.

Speaking from his balcony overlooking St Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict used several different languages to salute the Catholics who had come to bid him farewell at the end of his eight-year reign.

He said he was following God’s wishes in deciding to abdicate.

“The Lord is calling me to climb the mountain – prayer is not an isolation from the world,” he said.

“I am not abandoning the Church and shall continue to serve it in a manner more adapted to my age and strength,” through prayer and meditation, he added.

Pope Benedict will hold his last public appearance as pope in the square on Wednesday before he retires to a life of seclusion and prayer.

Pope Benedict XVI has given his final Sunday blessing at the Vatican before he steps down on February 28

Pope Benedict XVI has given his final Sunday blessing at the Vatican before he steps down on February 28

In total 117 Cardinals under the age of 80 from around the world have been called to the conclave to choose his successor.

Some Catholics are calling on Cardinal Keith O’Brien from Scotland and Cardinal Mahony from Los Angeles to refrain from voting in next month’s election.

Cardinal Mahony was stripped of his duties as Archbishop of Los Angeles last month over allegations he protected priests accused of sexual abuse.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien has denied allegations of “inappropriate behavior” going back 30 years.

The Vatican has denounced attempts to condition the freedom of all cardinal electors to choose who they want to lead the Church in future.

On Saturday a statement criticized the media for reporting “misinformation” about alleged intrigue and corruption in the church.

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