Eric J. Lyman, Special for USA TODAY
VATICAN CITY -- The process of picking a successor to Pope Benedict XVI officially got underway Monday with more than 100 of the electors who will select the next pope meeting in a formal set of "congregations," but press officials said the dates of the papal conclave will not be set until all the cardinal electors are in town.
Cardinals were treated like rock stars as they entered the Vatican on Monday morning, with television crews swarming around the red-capped churchmen and their handlers pushing their way through the crowds.
"A Latin American Pope is possible, everything is possible!" said Portuguese Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins as he entered.
Press officials steadfastly refused to discuss any issues of substance Monday, despite repeated queries about what is to come regarding Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien, who admitted Sunday that he was guilty of "inappropriate" relations with priests in the 1980s. There is no word if the Vatican will launch its own investigation into O'Brien's activities or whether O'Brien, who said he would retire, would retain the title of cardinal.
The core agenda item is to set the date for the conclave and set in place procedures to prepare for it, including closing the Sistine Chapel to visitors and getting the Vatican hotel cleared out and de-bugged, lest anyone try to listen in on the secret conversations of the cardinals.
But a date may not be agreed upon Monday as the dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, has said the date won't be finalized until all cardinals have arrived in Rome.
Some levity was injected into the staid process that got underway Monday when it was revealed that someone dressed as a bishop and with a staff of fake priests tried unsuccessfully to sneak into the meetings. But Fr. Federico Lombardy, Vatican spokesman, declined to comment on that as well: "All I can say is that everyone seated for the congregation is a real cardinal," he said.
All told, 142 of 207 cardinals -- including those aged 80 or older, who cannot vote for the next pope -- participated in the morning meetings, which officials said included 103 of the 115 cardinals who will vote to select the next pontiff. Most of the remaining 12 cardinal electors are expected to arrive later Monday or on Tuesday, though Lombardi did not exclude the possibility that the full contingent might not be gathered until Wednesday or later.
Only once all 115 cardinal electors are gathered will they discuss the dates of the conclave.
"I get asked about the conclave dates at least once an hour, but there is no news about that, it has not been discussed yet," Lombardi said.