Roman Catholic leaders in Britain have called on the faithful to pray for the cardinals gathered in Rome on the eve of the conclave to elect a new pope.
The Most Rev Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and leader of Catholics in England and Wales, said “much” had been made of who will be present at the conclave, including complaints about the absence of a representative from Britain.
But he said all Catholics could contribute by praying for the cardinals taking part in the conclave at a “crucial” moment in the history of the Roman Catholic Church.
“We pray for each and every cardinal in his decision taking,” Archbishop Nichols said in a letter distributed to Roman Catholic parishes and schools.
“They are striving to be, first of all, instruments of God, in some ways like pens in the hand of the Lord. We pray for them that they will respond freely and sensitively to the hand that moves them, the mind that directs them.”
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the retired Archbishop of Westminster, speaking in Rome, said: “It's not only the cardinals who will be praying, we should pray with them.
“I hope all of you - especially those of you in England and Wales - will be praying for the cardinal electors and the Church at this time.”
Both clerics were speaking as 115 Roman Catholic cardinals from around the world were due to be locked into the Sistine Chapel from tomorrow afternoon for the start of the conclave, with the first balloting due soon afterwards.
No clear frontrunner has emerged to replace 85-year-old Pope Benedict XVI, who stepped down at the end of last month, the first pope to do so for nearly 600 years.
The conclave is thought to be facing a choice as to whether to elect a pope from the developing world - either Africa, Asia, or Latin America, or whether to revert to an Italian pope after the reigns of John Paul II, a Pole, and German-born Benedict XVI.
Cardinals frequently mentioned as “papabile” or possible candidates, include Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Culture, Cardinal Odilo Scherer, Archbishop of Sao Paolo in Brazil, and Cardinal Angelo Scola, Archbishop of Milan.
Pre-conclave meetings, or general congregations, held last week have exposed sharp divisions amongst cardinals about the problems facing the Church, according to reports, including the governance of the Roman Catholic curia, the departments which control the 1.2 billion global Catholic Church.
Britain has no representative in the conclave as Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, at 80 years old, is ineligible to cast a vote.
Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the former leader of Catholics in Scotland, will not be attending the conclave after stepping down last month as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh amid allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards fellow priests.