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VATICAN CITY — The identity of the new pope fuels enormous anticipation, but the next most breathlessly discussed topic here has been when the cardinals will actually get down to choosing him.

The answer is Tuesday. The cardinals, after five days of meetings and plenty of speculation, settled on the date within a half-hour of the start of an afternoon session Friday. The news was transmitted by an email from the Vatican press office.

Cutting their discussions short suggests they have moved closer to drawing up a list of candidates, or at least the qualities they want in a new pope — a pastoral communicator, a firm administrator, a reformer of the Vatican’s scandal-tainted bureaucracy. But the field remains wide open, with no one considered a heavy favorite. A two-thirds majority, or 77 of the 115 elector cardinals, is required to elect a pope.

Given the record of conclaves in the past 110 years, it is likely that Catholics will have a new pontiff by the end of next week, in plenty of time for the beginning of Easter ceremonies, starting with Palm Sunday on March 24. The longest of those conclaves was in 1903 (ending in the selection of Pius X) and 1922 (Pius XI), each lasting five days. Three lasted two days, including the one that elected Benedict XVI in 2005.

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On Tuesday, the cardinals first will attend a special Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica for papal elections, and then in the afternoon they will file into the Sistine Chapel to begin their secret, anonymous balloting. They will hold one round of voting that afternoon and return to cast their ballots again Wednesday.

The cardinals began meeting Monday, four days after Benedict XVI left the Vatican forever as pope, the first man to resign the office in nearly 600 years. As part of the rules of papal transition, the cardinals take charge of the church, gather daily to discuss its future and share their hopes and expectations for the next vicar of Christ on earth.

A logistical task comes next: the assigning by lot of rooms for the 115 cardinals at the Vatican’s Santa Marta residence for the duration of the conclave, where they will be denied contact with the outside world. The random assignments ensure a spirit of objectivity, said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi. It ensures that cardinals cannot pick their neighbors, he added.

At their daily briefing Friday, Vatican press officials showed silent video images of the modest accommodations — a sitting room with a table and facing chairs, a single bed with a wrought-iron headboard, a small television (which will presumably be removed or deactivated), unadorned white walls.

The officials also showed images of a luxury suite destined to house the new pope while his apartment in the Apostolic Palace is prepared.

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