In one of his last major moves before the end of his papacy, Pope Benedict XVI is considering changing the rules for the international meeting of cardinals that will elect a new pope, a Vatican spokesman confirmed Wednesday.

Speaking at a press conference in Rome, the Vatican representative, the Rev. Frederico Lombardi, said the pope is looking at adjusting the "rites of conclave," but added that he wasn't sure if that included moving up the date of the election, as some cardinals have suggested.

The pontiff shocked Catholics when he announced last week that he will retire on Feb. 28 after seven years in office, making him the first pope to resign in 600 years. The church's current rules, instituted by Pope John Paul II, say that a conclave to elect a new pope must convene no less than 15 to 20 days after the prior pope leaves office. Right now, that means the earliest conclave could start on March 15.

Benedict's unusual move, however, has raised questions about the process of electing his successor and what happens after he leaves office. There are 117 cardinals who are eligible to vote in the conclave. Nearly two dozen are rumored to be in the running to be the next pontiff, including several non-Europeans.

Speaking to reporters last week, Lombardi said some cardinals had suggested the conclave take place earlier than usual, since the practice of having a "sede vacante" or vacant seat -- that is, a time during which there is no pope -- assumes that the prior pope had died in office. The sede vacante allows for a period of mourning, as well as giving cardinals time to travel to the Vatican for the election.

In that interview, Lombardi said the rules governing the conclave to choose a new pope are open to interpretation. The cardinals are in charge of the Catholic Church when there is no pope, and "it is possible that church authorities can prepare a proposal to be taken up by the cardinals on the first day after the papal vacancy," he said. The pope could also alter the conclave rules before he retires.

At Wednesday's press conference, Ambrogio Piazzoni, vice prefect of the Vatican library, clarified that the pope has until 7:59 p.m. on Feb 28 to change the conclave rules.

The conclave's date is receiving special attention because the most important period in the church's annual calendar, Holy Week, is fast approaching: It starts March 24 and ends with Easter Sunday on March 31. Given that installation Masses are traditionally celebrated on Sundays, the new pope would need to be installed by March 17 in order to be in office for Holy Week.

The timing of the conclave isn't the only missing piece of the puzzle as Benedict prepares to step down. While Benedict will live in a monastery in the Vatican gardens after his retirement and has said he will have no public role in the church, it's not known what effect the existence of a living former pope may have behind the scenes. It's also unclear if the pope will return to using his birth name, Joseph Ratzinger.

At least one relatively minor detail has been clarified: On Wednesday, Georg Ratzinger, the pope's brother, reportedly said that Benedict will continue to wear the white cassock after retirement.

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  • Benedict XVI

    April 19, 2005 – Feb. 28, 2013 (projected) Photo: Pope Benedict XVI greets the faithful at the end of the Ash Wednesday mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a solemn period of 40 days of prayer and self-denial leading up to Easter. Pope Benedict XVI told thousands of faithful Wednesday that he was resigning for "the good of the church", an extraordinary scene of a pope explaining himself to his flock that unfolded in his first appearance since dropping the bombshell announcement. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

  • John Paul II

    Oct. 16, 1978 – April 2, 2005 Photo: In this Oct. 22, 1978 file photo, Pope John Paul II places his hands on the shoulders of West German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, archbishop of Munich and Freising, during the solemn inauguration of his ministry as universal Pastor of the Church in Vatican City. Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, announced Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 that he will resign on Feb. 28. The 85-year-old pope announced his decision in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals. (AP Photo)

  • John Paul I

    Aug. 26, 1978 – Sept. 28, 1978

  • Paul VI

    June 21, 1963 – Aug. 6, 1978

  • John XXIII

    Oct. 28, 1958 – June 3, 1963

  • Pius XII

    March 2, 1939 – Oct. 9, 1958

  • Pius XI

    Feb. 6, 1922 – Feb. 10, 1939

  • Benedict XV

    Sept. 3, 1914 – Jan. 22, 1922

  • Pius X

    Aug. 4, 1903 – Aug. 20, 1914

  • Leo XIII

    Feb. 20, 1878 – July 20, 1903

  • Pius IX

    June 16, 1846 – Feb. 7, 1878

  • Gregory XVI

    Feb. 2, 1831 – June 1, 1846

  • Pius VIII

    March 31, 1829 – Dec. 1, 1830

  • Leo XII

    Sept. 28, 1823 – Feb. 10, 1829

  • Pius VII

    March 14, 1800 – Aug. 20, 1823

  • Pius VI

    Feb. 15, 1775 – Aug. 29, 1799

  • Clemens XIV

    May 19, 1769 – Sept. 22, 1774

  • Clement XIII

    July 6, 1758 – Feb. 2, 1769

  • Benoit XIV

    Aug. 17, 1740 – May 3, 1758

  • Clement XII

    July 12, 1730 – Feb. 6, 1740

  • Benedict XIII

    May 29, 1724 – Feb. 21, 1730

  • Innocent XIII

    May 8, 1721 – March 7, 1724

  • Clement XI

    Nov. 23, 1700 – March 19, 1721

  • Innocent XII

    July 12, 1691 – Sept. 27,1700

  • Alexander VIII

    Oct. 6, 1689 – Feb. 1, 1691

  • Innocent XI

    Sept. 21, 1676 – Aug. 11/12, 1689

  • Clement X

    April 29, 1670 – July 22, 1676

  • Clement IX

    June 20, 1667 – Dec. 9, 1669

  • Alexander VII

    April 7, 1655 – May 22, 1667

  • Innocent X

    Sept. 15, 1644 – Jan. 7 1655

  • Urban VIII

    Aug. 6,1623 – July 29, 1644

  • Gregory XV

    Feb. 9, 1621 – July 8, 1623

  • Paul V

    May 16, 1605 – Jan. 28, 1621

  • Leo XI

    April 1, 1605 – April 27, 1605

  • Clement VIII

    Jan. 30, 1592 – March 3, 1605

  • Innocent IX

    Oct. 29, 1591 – Dec. 30, 1591

  • Gregory XIV

    Dec. 5, 1590 – Oct. 15/16, 1591

  • Urban VII

    Sept. 15, 1590 – Sept. 27, 1590

  • Sixtus V

    April 24, 1585 – Aug. 27, 1590

  • Gregory XIII

    May 13, 1572 – April 10, 1585

  • Pius V

    Jan. 7, 1566 – May 1, 1572

  • Pius IV

    Dec. 25, 1559 – Dec. 9, 1565

  • Paul IV

    May 23, 1555 – Aug. 18, 1559

  • Marcellus II

    April 9, 1555 – April 30/May 1, 1555

  • Julius III

    Feb. 7, 1550 – March 29, 1555

  • Paul III

    Oct. 13, 1534 – Nov. 10, 1549

  • Clement VII

    Nov. 26, 1523 – Sept. 25, 1534

  • Adrian VI

    Jan. 9, 1522 – Sept. 14,1523

  • Leo X

    March 9, 1513 – Dec. 1, 1521

  • Julius II

    Oct. 31, 1503 – Feb. 21, 1513

  • Pius III

    Sept. 22, 1503 – Oct. 18, 1503