"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.
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.