The cardinals of the Catholic Church gathered for their first general meeting this morning to take an oath of secrecy, pray and begin discussing some of the logistics to elect a new Pope.
According to the apostolic constitution "Universi Dominici Gregis," which governs the process of electing a new Pope, the cardinals will also have a second meditation delivered just before the beginning of the conclave
"The atmosphere was very serene, positive and intense. It was constructive and reflects a spirit concern for the Church throughout the world," Father Federico Lombardi said March 4.
The first general congregation began precisely at 9:30 a.m. and commenced with the cardinals reciting the Veni Sancti Spiritus, Veni Creator and Adsumus prayers.
There were 142 cardinals present, and of those 103 were cardinal electors. There are still 12 cardinals who are in the process of travelling to Rome and they are expected to arrive in the next two days.
Fr. Lombardi said that no decision was made today about the date of the conclave and pointed out that not all of the cardinals are present yet.
After the opening prayers, the cardinals took an oath to "maintain rigorous secrecy with regard to all matters in any way related to the election of the Roman Pontiff." They recited a part of the oath together and then individually processed to the front of the hall to take the rest of it with their hand on the Bible.
As the gathering began to consider business matters, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Dean of the College of the Cardinals, proposed sending a message to Benedict XVI and the idea was warmly received. According to Fr. Lombardi, the letter is being prepared and will be finalized this afternoon.
Between 11:45 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. the cardinals had the opportunity to make interventions, most of which revolved around whether or not to have an afternoon session, as they will later today at 5:00 p.m.
The cardinals will receive a meditation at their evening session from the Preacher for the Papal Household, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa.
While the cardinals created by Benedict XVI arrive in Rome and get acquainted with the pre-conclave operations, cardinals from the old establishment are pushing for a quick conclave.
An anonymous cardinal - which is how this type of pressure is usually applied - told the Italian press agency AGI that his "dream is that the Church will have a new Pope within this week," and that "this is possible if the congregation set this Thursday, the 7th, as the date for the conclave, and the conclave elects the new Pope by Friday, the 8th."
This is almost impossible, since the Sistine Chapel must still be prepared for the conclave and has not been closed to visitors yet.
In 2005, the Vatican office that deals with furnishing and decorating the Sacred Palace - called the Floreria Apostolica - began preparing the Sistine Chapel on April 5 and the conclave did not begin on April 18. And even though the Floreria clerks are not busy with the novendiali - the nine days of mourning for the late Pope - the Sistine Chapel will not probably be ready for at least seven days.
These kind of anonymous declarations appear to be part of maneuvering to hurry the conclave. Cardinals from the old establishment are among the most active in this pre-conclave period.
On Sunday, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, met with Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Dean of the College of Cardinals. As the former Vatican Secretary of State, Sodano led the movement during the 2005 conclave to prevent Ratzinger's election. Sodano will not be part of this the conclave - he turned 80 six years ago - but he will manage the General Congregation meeting of cardinals that began this morning.
In the Sistine Chapel, Sodano's man will be Leonardo Sandri, whose career developed under Sodano's wings ever since he was appointed papal nuncio to Mexico.
And in informal meetings ahead of the conclave, Cardinal Sandri has been one of the most active, working to organize the old establishment cardinals, especially those who are part of the circle of diplomats.
This small group was not overjoyed by Benedict XVI's election, and they lost influence under his pontificate. After "Ratzinger's parenthesis," they would like a Pope who is more won-over to their issues and their influence.
Under Benedict XVI, the old guard lost their control over the Secretariat of State, a blow they haven't forgotten.
The fact that the Pope emeritus chose Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone as his secretary of state when he did not have a diplomatic career irked them, and so many of the attacks against him originated from their quarter.
When it comes to the conclave, the diplomats are looking for some sort of vindication, pushing for a quick conclave to take advantage of the inexperience of the most recently created cardinals.
They are backing the option of electing a second Pope Roncalli (John XXIII), i.e. a very old Pope who is able to innovate. For the time this has meant a resurrection of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires and Ratzinger's main contender for the papacy in 2005.
Meanwhile, the American cardinals are advocating a later conclave date. Last week, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York remarked, "Don't hurry the conclave."
When the conclave will take place is still up in the air.
At a March 4 afternoon press conference, Vatican press office director Father Federico Lombardi told journalists that there are still 12 cardinals who have not yet arrived in Rome but that they will all arrive by Tuesday.