Video: The start of sede vacante and the world's most-watched job search

It’s the most-watched job search this year, at least. Last year, it would have been the American presidential election, in which the incumbent hadn’t decided to retire, and voters ended up giving him another four years. The cardinals of the Catholic Church don’t have that option, and now that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has retired to Castel Gandolfo for a few months, the rest of the leadership can proceed on selecting his successor. Instead of setting a date immediately for the conclave that will choose the next pontiff, though, the cardinals have decided to wait until Monday to address that question — even though most of them are already in Rome:

With the 8 p.m. Thursday end of Benedict’s papacy, every department head in the Vatican lost his job — except for those whose offices are crucial for the smooth running of the transition period itself.

Cardinals on Monday will begin formal meetings to set the date for the conclave and discuss problems facing the church; major topics of discussion are expected to be the report Benedict commissioned into the leaks of sensitive Vatican documents and the dysfunction currently reigning in the Vatican bureaucracy.

The date for the conclave of cardinals to begin their deliberations has not yet been set, although one of Pope Benedict XVI’s final acts before resigning his office was to amend the rules governing the election of a successor, allowing the cardinals to meet earlier than the usual 15-day transition between pontificates.

Speculation at the Vatican pegged the start date of the conclave as March 11th, and yesterday appeared to bring at least some confirmation that the cardinals may be reaching a consensus on that point:

On Thursday, soon after Benedict left the Vatican on his final day as pope, Monsignor Carlo Maria Celli, a papal communications officer, hinted that the date could be March 11. That could not be immediately confirmed.

The date of the conclave’s start is important because Holy Week begins March 24, with Easter Sunday March 31. In order to have a new pope in place for the church’s most solemn liturgical period, he would need to be installed by Sunday, March 17.

The start date matters less than it did in ages past, when it took months or even years for the cardinals to make up their mind and grant someone the two-thirds-plus-one vote that settles pontifical elections.  The last few conclaves made their minds up relatively quickly once they began meeting.  The last conclave that took more than five days for voting was in 1830-31, which took almost two months after the normal sede vacante period had passed.  The conclave that elected Benedict XVI took only two days; the previous conclave that elected John Paul II took three.  The conclave will very likely conclude well before the 17th with a March 11th start date.

CNN’s report today focuses on the “politicking” that will take place:

The term “politicking” is not an artful term in this case, given its connotations.  Most of these cardinals will not know each other very well, and will have to acquaint themselves with their colleagues.  The focus will be on the needs of the office rather than individual candidates, so it’s not the kind of “election” with which most people would be familiar, either. There is a saying that the cardinal who goes to a conclave to become Pope leaves a cardinal, as personal ambition is not exactly a winning quality for elections.  The cardinals are more likely to focus on the needs for personal and robust evangelization and a fresh perspective on organizational issues, and humility will be a key quality for consideration.  For both reasons, cardinals might be tempted to look outside of Europe.

As I announced on the Hugh Hewitt show last night, I will be traveling to Rome to cover this conclave for Hot Air.  I have received credentials from the Vatican and will have access to the press center and media events, and I’m beginning to make contacts for interesting stories and on-camera interviews.  I’ll also cast a closer look on Eurozone stories, perhaps especially the impact of the Italian elections on the European debt crisis.  I may be there for as long as two weeks, depending on the conclave’s length and the events surrounding it.  It’s a once-a-generation event in most cases, and it’s a big story in both the secular and faith contexts.