VATICAN CITY - Cardinals from around the world have descended on Rome to discuss some of the major problems facing the Catholic Church ahead of the conclave to elect Benedict XVI's successor as pope. Topping the agenda: Vatican scandals, Benedict's remarkable decision to resign and efforts to keep Christianity relevant in today's world.
The first pre-conclave meeting is scheduled for Monday morning, headed by the dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano. He has said the date for the start of the conclave won't be set until all the cardinals are in Rome, meaning a definitive date may not come until mid-week.
The function of the pre-conclave sessions is to discuss core issues facing the church and for the cardinals to get to know one another better - both of which are designed to help the 115 voting-age "princes" of the church choose the right man for the papacy.
This time around, there's one unofficial agenda item that is attracting the most attention: a briefing from the three cardinals who conducted the investigation into the leaks of confidential documents from the pope's study.
Italian news reports have been rife with unsourced reports about the purported contents of the cardinals' dossier - reports which the Vatican has labeled as "false."
Even if the reports are off, though, the leaks themselves confirmed a fairly high level of dysfunction within the Vatican bureaucracy, with intrigues, turf battles and allegations of corruption, nepotism and cronyism at the highest levels of the church hierarchy.
In one of his last audiences before resigning, Benedict met with the three cardinals who prepared the report and decided that their dossier would remain secret. But he gave them the go-ahead to answer cardinals' questions about its contents.
"What we talk about ... will be certainly the governance of the church and in that context there may be questions to people who did the report," U.S. Cardinal Francis George told reporters. "I think we will find out a lot from a lot of sources to figure out what is necessary now to govern the church well here in Rome itself."
The pope's ex-butler was convicted by a Vatican court of stealing the papers and giving them to an Italian journalist, though he was later pardoned by Benedict.
Another topic facing the cardinals is the reason they're here in the first place: Benedict's resignation and its implications. His decision to end 600 years of tradition and retire rather than stay on the job until death has completely altered the concept of the papacy, and cardinals haven't shied from weighing in about the implications for the next pope.
Previously, cardinals might have been wary about electing a very young pope, fearing a lengthy papacy. With Benedict's resignation, the field might be open now to a younger pope, or conversely an older one who may serve for a few years and then retire without having his final years play out on the world stage, as was the case with Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C., said the demands on a pope are enormous these days and take a toll: There's world travel, writing encyclicals, holding audiences with visiting heads of state and bishops - not to mention governing the 1.2 billion-strong church and taking time out to pray.
"I wonder if the church isn't better served by simply knowing we can choose the best person we think to be pope, then at a certain point if he thinks 'I can't do this anymore,' then he is free to step aside, just like Pope Benedict did," Wuerl told The Associated Press on Sunday. "I think it is a very liberating thought that we are free to face this reality, this possibility."
Sydney Archbishop Cardinal George Pell, though, has said the resignation was "slightly destabilizing" for the church and that he doesn't want it to create a trend with popes "popping in and out."
South African Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier told Spain's El Mundo newspaper that a talent for governance and stamina were important considerations for choosing the new pope - but more important was that the pope must be someone who can show that the church and faith are alive.
It's a sentiment echoed by Wuerl: "Our task is to say to as many people as will listen 'There is a God. God loves you. God wants to be a part of your life,'" Wuerl told AP. "If there are some internal problems in the Vatican, administrative problems at the Vatican, that eventually will be dealt with. It certainly isn't going to condition how I am going to be looking at who is going to guide and lead the church in the next years."