The Vatican said Tuesday that the date for the conclave to elect a new pope could be set before all cardinals have arrived in Rome, as five electors were still missing from the roll call.
"It is not necessary for all of them to be present to set the date of the conclave," spokesman Federico Lombardi said, adding that what was key was that the five missing were given enough time to get to the Vatican before the secret election begins.
Of the 115 cardinals due to take part in the election of Benedict XVI's successor, 110 are already in Rome.
Those missing are Egypt's Antonios Naguib, Germany's Karl Lehmann, Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man from Vietnam, Kazimiez Nycz from Poland, and Hong Kong's John Hon Tong.
Some of the latecomers were expected later Tuesday or Wednesday, while those who arrived Monday had taken their oath of secrecy at pre-conclave talks, Lombardi said.
The cardinals already in Vatican City were debating "how long they need to prepare such an important decision" and would not be hurried into setting a conclave date, he said.
"The cardinals want time to organise themselves according to personal rhythms of reflection and dialogue, to gather information and listen to opinions" on the papal candidates, he said.
Any one of the cardinal electors can be chosen as future pope. The Vatican has said it is keen to get the process rolling in order to have a pontiff in place by Easter.