The much anticipated conclave will start Tuesday, March 12, when 115 cardinals will lock themselves inside the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City to elect a new pope.
Since Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI announced his resignation as pontiff in the middle of February, the Catholic world as well as media has been looking forward to the election of the pope who will serve as the spiritual guide of 1.2 billion Catholics around the world.
Before voting the 115 cardinals will concelebrate a Pro Eligondo Romana Pontifice Mass on Tuesday at St Peter's Basilica. The first round of balloting will be done in the afternoon, according to the Vatican press office.
All the cardinals are sworn to secrecy on details of the conclave, with the threat of excommunication if they reveal details. To further ensure no leaks, all the 115 cardinals are housed at a closely monitored residence, the Casa Santa Marta, built specifically as accommodations for the cardinals.
Beginning Wednesday, there will be two voting session - one in the morning and another in the afternoon. Then the ballots will be burned after all votes are in at around 12 noon and 6 p.m.
The papal candidate, to become pope, must secure two-thirds of the vote. That means with 115 cardinals, at least 77 cardinals must vote for the same cardinal.
There are already two stoves inside the Sistine Chapel that will produce white smoke to signal that the cardinals have agreed on a common candidate.
In 2005, after Pope John Paul II died, the cardinals took three days to decide on then Cardinal Josef Ratzinger of Germany as their choice to become pontiff. After eight years of leading the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI resigned, the first pope to do so in 600 years, citing his failing health as the reason.
This early, there are no clear frontrunners, although among bookmakers, Ghanian Cardinal Peter Turkson heads the bets, followed by Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet and Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola.
However, the three are included in the so-called Dirty Dozen, a list of cardinals who allegedly have bad record in handling sexual abuse cases involving children. The list was compiled by the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and released on Thursday.
The next day, SNAP released three church leaders whom the group considered as the best papal candidates based on their record on how they handled sex abuse cases. They are Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Austria and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Ireland.
The Vatican has accredited 4,000 journalists from around the world to cover the papal election.