Roman Catholic cardinals prayed together on Monday as they began preliminary meetings to sketch an identikit for the next pope.

The cardinals arrived at the Vatican for gatherings known as general congregations, closed-door meetings in which they will get to know each other and decide when to start a conclave to choose a man to lead the 1.2 billion member Church.

The Vatican appears to be aiming to have a new pope elected next week and officially installed several days later so he can preside over the Holy Week ceremonies starting with Palm Sunday on March 24 and culminating in Easter the following Sunday.

Pope Benedict left the Church in a state of shock when he announced last month that he would be the first pontiff in 600 years to resign instead of ruling for life. He formally stepped down on Thursday, leaving the papacy vacant.

Presented by Adam Justice