Pope Benedict XVI officially stepped down as pontiff and became Pope Emeritus of the Roman Catholic Church Feb. 28 after announcing that he would leave his position Feb. 11.

The pope’s resignation marks the beginning of sede vacante — a  Latin phrase meaning ‘empty seat’ — a period marking the lack of Catholic leadership as the College of Cardinals elect a new pope in a process called conclave.

Traditionally, at least 15 days of mourning precede the beginning of a conclave, but Benedict amended the Vatican Constitution to allow conclave to convene as early as nine days after resignation.

Once conclave begins, the approximately 115 cardinals who are eligible to vote will be locked in the Sistine Chapel and barred from all communication with the outside world until they reach a two-thirds majority in their decision for Benedict’s successor. Given the unprecedented advanced warning and time for consideration, this conclave is not expected to last as long as it normally does.

“I think it will be a fast conclave because of the long time elapsing between the announcement of resignation and the beginning of conclave,” theology professor Fr. John O’Malley, S.J., wrote in an email. “I’m sure some cardinals already have their first choice, but they also know that they have to be flexible because of the two-thirds majority required.”

Despite the several weeks available to consider the question of succession, experts and speculators alike are hesitant to predict a leading candidate.

“Peculiar this time is not so much that there is no ‘front runner’ or cardinal with [a] strong public profile, but that there does not seem to be even a group of five or six who are ‘likely,’” O’Malley wrote.

However, O’Malley indicated that certain qualities are to be expected of the next pontiff, namely a desire to streamline the Roman Curia and Vatican bureaucracy in order to help the officials coordinate more effectively and more efficiently.

The most prominent American papal candidate, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that he did not believe he would be elected.

“I’ve got a round-trip ticket,” Dolan said in an interview with CBS New York on Monday.

Meanwhile, Catholics around the world are flocking to Rome and the Vatican to participate in the historic proceedings and to send their prayers and farewells to Benedict. According to the Vatican, more than 200,000 people filled St. Peter’s Square on Sunday for the Pope’s final Angelus address and 50,000 people requested tickets for Wednesday’s audience.

Sue Marie Breden (COL ’14), who will head to Rome on Saturday with the Georgetown University Chamber Singers, said that this is a fascinating time for the city.

“With the conclave being so close and the [Italian] elections going on at the same time, I just get the feeling that there’s going to be a heightened sense of excitement,” she said.

Services of Thanksgiving on Benedict’s behalf were held throughout the Archdiocese of Washington, whose leader, Archbishop Donald Wuerl, is also a cardinal elector. Wuerl will participate in the conclave and left for Rome on Sunday, according to his office.

The university also participated in wishing Benedict well, holding a Mass in his honor on Tuesday evening in Dahlgren Chapel.

The Vatican announced in a press release that they expect the new pope to be installed before Holy Week, the most important week in the Catholic liturgical calendar, which begins March 24.

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