Cardinals hold final talks before start of pope vote

VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Cardinals will hold a final set of meetings on Monday before they are locked away to choose a new pope to lead the Roman Catholic Church through troubled times.

The conclave triggered by the historic resignation of Benedict XVI will start on Tuesday, with the eyes of the world on the 115 men who must nominate one of their own to take his place.

Vatican watchers say there is no clear favourite, but three names have emerged as frontrunners - Odilo Scherer, the charismatic archbishop of Sao Paulo, Italian conservative Angelo Scola, head of the powerful Milan archdiocese, and Marc Ouellet, a Canadian who holds a senior Vatican position.

"We are all waiting for the upcoming conclave, not only the faithful of the Catholic Church but the whole world is waiting," Ouellet said in a homily in Rome on Sunday.

On Tuesday, all the cardinals will swear a solemn oath of secrecy and hold a first vote to find a new leader for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.

The challenge facing them is to find a pope - the 266th - strong enough to grapple with the challenges assailing the Catholic Church which proved too much for 85-year-old Benedict.

His resignation - the first for 700 years - has focused attention on the need to find a leader with the energy to shape the Church's approach to the growing secularism in the West and the Islamic radicalism spreading to many parts of the globe.

Cardinals have expressed a desire for a more vigorous, pastoral figure to deal with the scandal over sexual abuse by paedophile priests and cover-ups that has rocked the Catholic Church.

A top French cardinal who will cast his vote this week said that heaping the blame for paedophilia on the Church is simply a way of avoiding the issue.

"There is a kind of opinion that is an easy way of ridding (society) of the issue of paedophilia by putting it on the Church," Andre Vingt-Trois, the archbishop of Paris, said.

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