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As Pope Benedict XVI departs, still no timeline for 'very contentious' conclave

The final hours of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy, including his scheduled departure on Thursday from the Vatican by helicopter, have been planned in detail. But major questions remain over the timing of the choice of his successor, which some experts fear “could go on a while.”

A date for the start of the secret papal conclave may not be chosen until the world’s cardinals formally meet on Monday for the first time since Benedict’s departure.

When Pope Benedict XVI steps down, he will head to the sleepy town of Castel Gandolfo, used by popes as a quiet sanctuary for 400 years, where he will await the completion of construction on his new home. NBC's Savannah Guthrie reports.

Observers say the Vatican’s leaden bureaucracy, the curia, could act as a brake on the election mechanism despite Benedict’s attempt to accelerate progress on Monday by amending ancient church laws.

Timing is important because Holy Week begins March 24, with Easter Sunday March 31. To have a new pope in place for the church's most solemn liturgical period, the chosen candidate would need to be installed by Sunday, March 17.

The decision itself may also be drawn out as cardinals struggle to overcome deep divisions and rivalries over who is best placed to get a grip on the Vatican and move the church forward from an era of scandal and intrigue.

“My sense is this could go on a while,” said NBC News' Vatican expert, George Weigel. “There’s no clear front-runner. There is also a serious concern at the way in which the bureaucracy is operating amid all of this. It could be a very contentious conclave.”

Thomas Groome, professor of theology and religious education at Boston College, Mass., said the timing and duration of the conclave remained “anyone's guess.”

“My guess is that it will be a long one - certainly far longer than the previous. There is no front runner and a lot of issues to be weighted, most especially how to respond - finally and effectively - to the clergy sex abuse scandal.”

Church officials could be forgiven for being nervous: The longest papal election in history dragged on for two years and three months, lasting so long that three cardinals died and a fourth resigned before a decision was reached, in 1271.

Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images

The pope delivers his final audience in St. Peter's Square as he prepares to stand down.

The most recent conclave, in 2005, lasted only 24 hours – not least because the death of Pope John Paul II was not unexpected and cardinals had been positioning to take over for many years.

In contrast, Benedict's decision to abdicate appears to have taken most of the Catholic hierarchy by surprise.

Matthew Bunson, general editor of the Catholic Almanac and author of 45 books, including a biography of Benedict, said much would depend on the length of the “general congregations” – Vatican meetings that discuss issues facing the church prior to the start of the conclave itself.

“If the cardinals are able to come to a consensus on a candidate or a few candidates, then the conclave will be relatively short,” said Bunson. “If there is disagreement about the potential candidates, then the conclave may be a protracted one.”

He added: “There does seem to be a general agreement that the new pontiff must be in a position to assume the challenges of the office quickly. Combined with the sense of urgency because of the looming events of Holy Week, that would give the cardinals some incentive to enter quickly and reach a conclusion in a relatively short time.”

That sentiment was echoed by the Rev. Thomas Reese, author of "Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church,” who said: “I don't expect them to take more than three days. Last time it went over five days was in 1831.”

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, told the Catholic News Service on Wednesday that it is possible the world's cardinals will not begin meeting at the Vatican until Monday, and a conclave start date cannot be set until they have met.

Leading historian Michael Walsh discusses the impact of Pope Benedict XVI's resignation, his legacy and whether there's a chance that the next pontiff will be a non-European.

Lombardi said Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, will send out letters Friday formally informing the world's cardinals that the papacy is vacant and calling them to meet at the Vatican.

Many Vatican insiders believe the timing now points to a conclave starting Monday, March 11.

The number of cardinals eligible to take part has already been reduced by two, from 117 to 115, after  Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, stepped aside over allegations from priests of “inappropriate behavior,” and an Indonesian cardinal recused himself because of ill health.

The conclave process, in which cardinals are locked into their rooms until reaching a decision, was a tradition that began in 1271 following frustration at the failure of the church to agree on a replacement for Pope Clement IV, who died in 1268. Eventually, cardinals were locked inside the papal palace in Viterbo by exasperated magistrates.

Pope John Paul II changed the conclave rules in 1996, allowing cardinals to leave the Sistine Chapel during conclaves to eat and sleep if necessary.

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