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.