The Vatican has announced that cardinals will begin their secretive conclave next Tuesday, setting in motion the process of electing the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

The date was set Friday afternoon, after a week of pre-conclave meetings culminated in a vote by the College of Cardinals.

In a news release, the Vatican said cardinals will take part in a pontifical mass at St. Peter's Basilica on the morning of March 12. Afterward, they will head into the closed-door conclave where they will remain isolated from the outside world until retired Pope Benedict XVI's successor is elected.

The 85-year-old Benedict became the first pontiff in 600 years to resign, citing his advanced age and declining health.

If a pope is not elected in a single vote on that first day, cardinals will cast four ballots a day -- two in the morning and two in the afternoon -- until two-thirds agree on a single candidate.

Ballots will be burned following each vote, with the colour of the smoke ascending from a chimney above the Sistine Chapel announcing whether or not a decision has been reached.

Black smoke means cardinals have not reached a two-thirds majority, while white smoke means the next pope has been chosen.

The process could stretch on for days or even weeks, although no conclave in the past century has ever gone beyond five days.

While the world's attention will be transfixed on that chimney, speculating about the politics of choosing a pope, the cardinals reportedly conduct the conclave in an atmosphere of silent prayer.

In that light, Vatican spokesperson Rev. Federico Lombardi said the discussions on necessary "profile, characteristics, qualities and talents" of a future pope have been handled in the pre-conclave meetings this week.

"Obviously the cardinals must arrive at this moment with all the information that is useful to make a judgment on such an important issue," he said. "The preparation is absolutely fundamental."

That work of preparing for the conclave has exposed some sharp divisions at the top ranks of the Church, as American and some German cardinals pressed for more in-depth pre-conclave discussions to hash out issues of dysfunction and corruption within the Church.

Vatican-based cardinals disagreed, however, in a measure of reluctance seen by some as an attempt to curtail negative publicity.

Dousing one simmering controversy, cardinals did vote Friday to exempt Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien from the conclave, after he resigned last week following an admission of sexual misconduct.

Combined with another exemption granted the ill archbishop of Jakarta, Cardinal Julius Darmaatjadja, that means 115 men are eligible to cast ballots for the next pope. Keeping the two-thirds rule in mind, a total of 77 votes are required to declare a victory.

Could a Canadian become the next pope?

According to reports from Rome, a long list of potential papal candidates has shrunk to only a few cardinals who are now considered to be front-runners.

Among them is Canadian cardinal Marc Ouellet, from La Motte, Que.

Ouellet, 68, is considered to be a favourite because of his conservative leanings and his position as head of the Vatican’s office for bishops, among other things.

Three Canadian cardinals – Ouellet, Jean-Claude Turcotte and Thomas Collins -- will take part in the conclave next week.

Bill Steinburg, the communications manager for the Archdiocese of Toronto who recently accompanied Collins in Rome, said Friday “it would be an exciting” time for Canadian Catholics if one of their own became the pope.

“It really would do a great deal for the church in Canada,” Steinburg told CTC News Channel.

“I think more importantly though, whoever is elected is being chosen to guide the world’s church”

With files from The Associated Press