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VATICAN CITY – About the only thing surpassing news of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI is speculation over when the College of Cardinals will convene to elect a new pope.
Pope Benedict may enact a new law allowing the Vatican to begin the voting process earlier. The current law says cardinals should wait 15 days after the papacy becomes vacant before launching a conclave to allow all eligible cardinals to arrive in Rome. This would make March 15 the presumed start. That delay, however, assumes a papal death and funeral. In Pope Benedict's case, the cardinals already know that his pontificate will end Feb. 28.
Advancing the conclave start-date would make obvious good sense, but actually doing so on anything less than express papal authority raises serious canonical and even ecclesiological problems.
The Vatican spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Wednesday that he didn't know for sure if the new law under consideration would address the timing of the conclave following Benedict's Feb. 28 resignation. He said it would contain some "clarifications" on certain points. But given the crush of interest surrounding the conclave date, it seems only natural it might clarify the issue.
Some canonists and scholars have said the current rules allow for some wiggle room on the 15-day wait given that most if not all the cardinals will already be in Rome for Benedict's final general audience Feb. 27 and his farewell meeting with cardinals the next day.
"The document says that the cardinals present in Rome must wait 15 days for the arrival of the others," noted Ambrogio Piazzoni, the vice prefect of the Vatican library. "That can mean that if the cardinals all arrive before the 15 days there is no need to wait. The phrase 'must wait' doesn't say that you can't start before 15 days."
However, leading U.S. canonist Edward Peters, an adviser to the Vatican high court, welcomed word that the pope himself might intervene.
"Advancing the conclave start-date would make obvious good sense, but actually doing so on anything less than express papal authority raises serious canonical and even ecclesiological problems," he said on his blog.
The date of the conclave's start is important because Holy Week begins March 24, with Palm Sunday Mass followed by Easter Sunday on March 31. In order to have a new pope in place in time for the most solemn liturgical period on the church calendar, and because of the strong tradition to hold installation Mass on a Sunday, he would need to be installed by Sunday, March 17. Given the tight time-frame, speculation has mounted that some arrangement would be made to start the conclave on March 10 or thereabouts, earlier than a strict reading of the law would allow.
New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan said the No. 1 issue on the agenda is when the conclave would start.
Speaking Tuesday on his radio show on Sirius XM's "The Catholic Channel," Dolan said most cardinals would prefer to have a conclave sooner rather than later to avoid a long vacancy in the papacy.
"On the other hand you don't want to rush it. We need prayer. We need to get to know one another. We need time to let Benedict's departure sink in," he said. "So we're going to need the virtue of prudence here."
Reporting by The Associated Press.