The conclave to elect the next Pope has been announced as beginning on Tuesday 12 March 2013, ending much speculation since the cardinals gathered.
The 115 cardinal-electors within the 1.2 billion strong Roman Catholic Church are expected to deliberate for a period lasting from one day to a week or more.
The 2005 conclave that chose Benedict XVI lasted two days, while the election of Gregory X in 1271 took more than two years, reports the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in the USA, which is monitoring developments closely.
Just as the world's Catholic population is spread across the globe, the cardinal electors – members of the College of Cardinals who had not yet reached their 80th birthday on 28 February 2013 - the day the papacy became vacant following the resignation of Benedict XVI - have gathered from all regions of the world.
According to Pew Research Center data on the distribution of the world's Catholic population, the region with the largest share of the Catholic population is Latin America and the Caribbean (39 per cent), while 24 per cent of the world’s Catholics live in Europe. According to the Catholic News Service, fully half of the cardinal electors are European (52 per cent), and just 17 per cent come from Latin America.
In fact, 24 per cent of the cardinal electors are from Italy, though less than five per cent of the world’s Catholic population is Italian.
Prior to the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978, all the popes since the early 16th century had come from Italy.
A papal conclave is a meeting of the College of Cardinals convened to elect a new Bishop of Rome, also known as the Pope. The pope is considered by Roman Catholics to be the apostolic successor of Saint Peter and earthly head of the Catholic Church.
The conclave has been the procedure for choosing the pope for more than half of the time the church has been in existence, and is the oldest ongoing method for choosing the leader of an institution.
* Info graphic (c) Pew Forum, illustrating the geographical distribution of cardinals in the conclave: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/files/pf_13.02.26_cardinalelectors_mapbar.png
* Pew Forum: http://www.pewforum.org/