As the Catholic Church's cardinals gather in Rome to set a date for the selection of a new pope, there is no clear front-runner for the job. But one thing is for sure: The next pontiff will have a grueling schedule.

The recently retired Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessor, John Paul II, both worked days that could stretch from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m. or even midnight, said Don Briel, the director of the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

"The papacy has assumed a much more visible, prominent role and has become, as a result, much more exhausting in terms of its obligations," Briel told LiveScience.

A pope's duties

The broad job description for the role of pope is the head of the Catholic Church and the Bishop of Rome. The pope is also the head of the sovereign city-state, Vatican City.

What this means on a daily basis is that the pope has duties both political and religious. The pope meets with heads of state and maintains diplomatic relationships with more than 100 nations. He conducts liturgies, appoints new bishops and travels.

He doesn't, however, work like a corporate CEO, dipping into the local and daily workings of regional parishes, Briel said.

"He's looking at a very broad overview of the universal church, the church as a whole," he said. [Saint or Slacker? Test Your Religious Knowledge]

A typical day starts early, with a private mass attended by household staff, Briel said. After breakfast, the morning might be spent writing epistles, or formal communications, as well as other works of religious scholarship. Much of the rest of the day is likely to be spent in meetings with bishops and political leaders from around the world.

The pope also ministers directly to the faithful, greeting pilgrims at General Audiences, which usually attract between several thousand and tens of thousands of people. Briel attended Benedict's last General Audience in Rome in February, which drew 200,000, he said. 

Around important holidays, such as Easter, the pope delivers major liturgies in St. Peter's Cathedral or elsewhere in Rome. He also travels around the world, conducting masses for audiences that fill football stadiums.

Between popes

These nonstop duties are relatively new, Briel said. Before Pope Paul VI, who held office from 1963 to 1978, popes rarely traveled and had fewer political duties. As the church has become more of a diplomatic force, the role has become more demanding to meet the extra responsibilities.  

When the papacy is vacant, however, all these activities come to a stop. All of the curial offices are in suspension, Briel said. No major decisions are made, and no new bishops are appointed.

"The cardinals as a congregation have a general responsibility to make routine decisions, but nothing fundamentally of an extraordinary nature, so it's simply in a state of pause," Briel said.

Cardinals under the age of 80 are now meeting to set a date for the papal conclave, which will decide the new pope. The current speculation is that the conclave will start March 11, Briel said, which should give the cardinals enough time to have a new pope in Rome in time for the liturgical responsibilities of Easter.

If the decision takes longer than that — and it may, as there is no clear front-runner for the position — Easter Mass will go on. A cardinal busy with the secretive meetings of the conclave will preside. The most likely candidate for that job is Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the dean of the college of cardinals, who is 85.

"Since he's over 80, he's not in the conclave," Briel said.

Email Stephanie Pappas or follow her @sipappas. Follow LiveScience on Twitter @livescience, Facebook or Google+. Original article on

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What does the pope do, anyway?
The recently retired Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessor, John Paul II, both worked days that could stretch from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m. or even midnight.