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Vatican: Cardinals will meet Monday to discuss papal conclave date

Now that Benedict XVI has officially stepped down from his reign as pope, the speculation about who will be next begins. NBC's Keir Simmons reports on some of the frontrunners, including Cardinal Scola of Milan and Cardinal Turkson of Ghana.

ROME -- Roman Catholic cardinals will next week take the first step toward setting a date for a conclave that will elect a new pope, Vatican officials confirmed Friday.

The cardinals will begin informal discussions of church issues, known as "general congregations," at 9:30 a.m. local time (3:30 a.m. ET) on Monday, a Vatican press spokesman said.

At the top of their agenda will be the announcement of a date for the cardinals to enter the conclave – a closed, secret voting session held inside the Sistine Chapel that continues until they agree on a new leader for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

General congregations are the preliminary talks at which cardinals identify the key tasks facing the church, prior to the conclave at which they choose the best candidate suited to those tasks.

The first general congregation will take place in the Vatican’s Paul VI hall, according to Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Dean of the College of Cardinals. 

A second will take place at 5:00 p.m. local time (11 a.m. ET), he told reporters.

The Vatican's announcement came a day after the papacy of Benedict XVI formally ended with his departure by helicopter to a temporary residence at Castel Gandolfo.

It means the church is without a leader until the conclave has chosen a successor. 

Benedict XVI is now officially known as the pope emeritus.

Related:

Cheers and tears as Benedict flies to temporary home in hilltop town

Inside Castel Gandolfo, Benedict's spectacular temporary retirement home

How the pope's retirement package compares to yours

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