By Crispian Balmer
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Roman Catholic cardinals will start their conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict on March 12, the Vatican said on Friday, with no clear favorite to take charge of the troubled Church.
Benedict's surprise abdication last month has already brought most of the world's cardinals to the Vatican for discussions on the problems facing the 1.2 billion-member Church, and to decide on the profile of the man they want to lead them.
After five days of closed-door debate, the red-capped prelates decided on Friday to begin their secret ballot in the frescoed Sistine Chapel on the afternoon of next Tuesday following a Mass in St Peter's Basilica in the morning.
A total of 115 elector-cardinals, all aged under 80, are expected to take part in the elaborate ritual, which will continue until one man receives at least a two-thirds majority, or 77 votes.
The cardinals are likely to hold just one ballot on the first day and up to four ballots each day thereafter. Benedict was elected in barely 24 hours in 2005. His predecessor, John Paul II, became pope after eight rounds of voting spread over three days in the 1978 conclave.
The cardinals have made clear they want another quick conclave this time to make sure they can all return to their dioceses in time to lead Easter celebrations - the most important event in the Roman Catholic calendar.
"It's been 10 days since I left the archdiocese, and as the old song goes, 'I wanna go home!'" U.S. Cardinal Timothy Dolan said in a blog on Friday.
Cardinals were in the past locked into areas around the Sistine Chapel, famed for its Michelangelo frescoes, and not allowed out until they had chosen a new pontiff.
But the rules changed before the 2005 conclave and the prelates now get to reside in a comfortable Vatican hotel while they are not voting in the chapel itself.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said on Friday the cardinal electors would draw lots to see which rooms they would sleep in, with all external contact, including emails and telephone calls, forbidden.
Jamming devices will also be installed around the Sistine Chapel and the hotel to stop outsiders eavesdropping and to prevent mobile phone usage in the area.
One senior churchman is believed to have let slip to friends in Germany that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had been elected pope in 2005 before the crowds waiting in the nearby St. Peter's Square were informed.
(Additional reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Barry Moody)
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