Cardinals will hold a final set of meetings on Monday before they are locked away to choose a new pope to lead the Roman Catholic Church through troubled times.

The conclave triggered by the historic resignation of Benedict XVI will start on Tuesday, with the eyes of the world on the 115 men who must nominate one of their own to take his place.

Vatican watchers say there is no clear favourite, but three names have emerged as frontrunners -- Odilo Scherer, the charismatic archbishop of Sao Paulo, Italian conservative Angelo Scola, head of the powerful Milan archdiocese, and Marc Ouellet, a Canadian who holds a senior Vatican position.

"We are all waiting for the upcoming conclave, not only the faithful of the Catholic Church but the whole world is waiting," Ouellet said in a homily in Rome on Sunday.

At 1545 GMT on Tuesday, all the cardinals will swear a solemn oath of secrecy and hold a first vote to find a new leader for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.

The challenge facing them is to find a pope -- the 266th -- strong enough to grapple with the challenges assailing the Catholic Church which proved too much for 85-year-old Benedict.

His resignation -- the first for 700 years -- has focused attention on the need to find a leader with the energy to shape the Church's approach to the growing secularism in the West and the Islamic radicalism spreading to many parts of the globe.

Cardinals have expressed a desire for a more vigorous, pastoral figure to deal with the scandal over sexual abuse by paedophile priests and cover-ups that has rocked the Catholic Church.

A top French cardinal who will cast his vote this week told AFP that heaping the blame for paedophilia on the Church is simply a way of avoiding the issue.

"There is a kind of opinion that is an easy way of ridding (society) of the issue of paedophilia by putting it on the Church," Andre Vingt-Trois, the archbishop of Paris, said.

"We shouldn't be duped. It's easy because that prevents asking the question within society itself."

The cardinals also want a man who can reform the Roman Curia, the central government of the Catholic Church, which has been beset by the intrigue laid bare in documents leaked by Benedict's butler last year.

While Ouellet has attracted attention as the powerful prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, Scola was greeted by a mass of photographers and cameramen when he celebrated mass in the Church of the Twelve Holy Apostles on Sunday.

Scola, 71, a hardliner cut from the same cloth as Benedict, the German-born arch-conservative Joseph Ratzinger, has the advantage of not being associated with the tarnished Vatican bureaucracy.

"I think he is a good man, he would be a fine leader to help strengthen the Church. I am praying for him," said 69-year-old parishioner Maria Bettini, after attending the mass.

African Catholics -- whose numbers are growing in contrast to the dwindling church attendances in the Church's one-time European stronghold -- are praying for the first black pope.

"It is the aspiration of an entire people and an entire continent. It would be a strong sign," said Justin Golo, a Congolese priest at an African-influenced mass filled with music in Rome on Sunday.

Africa's hopes rest on Laurent Monsengwo, the archbishop of Kinshasa, and Ghana's Peter Turkson.

Yet the odds are stacked against a pope coming from the southern hemisphere -- 60 of the elector cardinals are from Europe and 14 from North America.

A two-thirds majority -- 77 votes or more -- is needed to elect a pope.

Every day of the conclave -- which literally means "with key", referring to the cardinals being locked in -- the voting papers will be burned at around 1100 GMT after two rounds of voting in the morning and 1800 GMT after two rounds in the afternoon.

Smoke from a chimney above the Sistine Chapel is turned black to signal there has been no decision. If it is white, a new pope has been elected.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]