"How long have those Cardinals locked themselves in the Vatican?" other lay Catholics have asked me, knowing my role as Chicago Catholic Examiner. "When do you think they'll elect a new Pope?" They haven't even started the conclave yet, I explain. "Why not?" comes the inevitable reply. "Didn't the Pope leave a week ago? What's the holdup"?
Papal conclaves are a subject that few people understand in detail, including even the most devout practicing Catholics. To begin with, it's not a process they rush through. After the death of a Pope, Cardinals present in Rome are required to wait at least fifteen days for the rest of the college to arrive before they can start a conclave to elect the new Pope. In this case, the previous Pope resigned and had announced his resignation several weeks earlier, so there was not as much disarray in calling the Cardinals to Rome, and there is no need to arrange funeral plans or a mourning period for the previous Pope. Still, when they had their first formal meeting on Monday to discuss plans for a conclave, only 142 of the 207 cardinals were present. Some old school Catholics believe that all cardinals need to be present in order to set a date for the conclave to begin, but in reality, canon law dictates that they must hold the conclave after twenty days have elapsed with the papacy being vacant (sede vacante), even if various cardinals are missing. (Before the days of air travel, Cardinal William O'Connell of Boston arrived too late for two conclaves in a row -- 1914 and 1922 -- and found himself locked out of the process)
Chicago's Cardinal Francis George discussed the process a bit with reporters on Monday, before the Vatican issued a gag rule and ordered the Cardinals to give no more interviews prior to the conclave. Cardinal George's comments to the Chicago Tribune were rather interesting, as they didn't point to the usual fluff but gave some actual insight into what the Cardinals were thinking: "So far, most of the signs are pointing away from somebody," he noted "The thought process starts with: 'This looks like somebody who can really do the job.' Then you talk to two other people, and you find out why they think he probably can't do the job. At this point, the signs are more negative than positive." Cardinal George also added: "We're starting to talk about candidates... some people have come forward that you haven't been talking about. That's interesting to me. Some are waxing and waning, depending on who you speak with."
How long do conclaves last once the doors are locked and the process begins? That can also vary greatly. In modern times, the "sede vacante" period without a Pope overall is around 15-20 days, but the actual conclaves themselves only last two or three days. Records are sketchy prior to 1059, but otherwise have some pretty definitive information. The longest conclave in history lasted nearly three years, from November 1268 to September 1271. This was because of a stalemate between Italian Cardinals and French Cardinals, as the two factions deadlocked for months and would not accept a Pope from the other faction under any circumstances. The election lasted so long that three Cardinals died during the conclave, and a fourth quit and went home. By contrast, the shortest conclave in history lasted just under 10 hours. Pope Pius III, who was elected in September 1503, had died after only 26 days in office. Most of the Cardinal electors from the previous conclave were still in Rome or nearby. They quickly called a papal conclave on October 18, 1503, and Cardinal Rovere was unanimously elected on the first ballot (with the exception of his own vote). He took the name Pope Julius II.
As is typical, the Apostolic Palace in Rome will be used to house the Cardinals during the conclave, and the voting will be held in the Sistine Chapel. This has been the location for conclaves since 1878. The date for the start of the new conclave has not yet been announced. We do know that Cardinal Angelo Sodano is serving as Dean, Roger Etchegaray as Sub-Dean, Lorenzo Baldisseri as Secretary, and Tarcisio Bertone as Camerlengo (i.e. Chamberlain, who functions as the executive director of Vatican operations during the election of a new Pope) There are a total of 115 Cardinal electors who plan to participate in the 2013 conclave, with two additional Cardinals -- Julius Darmaatmadja of Indonesia and Keith O'Brien of England -- eligible to participate but declining to do so.
So the short answer to "when will they elect a new Pope?" is "I don't know". Before he was "silenced", Chicago's Cardinal George noted that about 33 speeches have already been delivered during the general congregations about the conclave, but about "50 plus" cardinals have asked for additional time before they begin the proceedings. We should have an answer shortly. In the meantime, it's going to be a fun ride.