The Vatican raised the possibility Saturday that the conclave to elect the next pope might start sooner than March 15, the earliest date possible under current rules that require a 15-20 day waiting period after the papacy becomes vacant.
Vatican spokesman The Rev. Federico Lombardi said that the Vatican rules on papal succession are open to interpretation and that "this is a question that people are discussing."
"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" to move up the start of conclave, Lombardi said.
He explained that the 15-20 day rule is in place to allow time for the arrival of "all those [cardinals] who are absent" to take part in the conclave in the usual circumstances of convening after a pope dies.
But in this case, the cardinals already know that this pontificate will end on Feb. 28 with the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, and therefore can get to Rome in plenty of time to take part in the conclave, Lombardi said.
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, he would need to be installed as pope by Sunday, March 17. Given the tight time-frame, speculation has mounted that some sort of arrangement would be made to start the conclave earlier than a strict reading of the law would allow.
Final audience Feb. 27
Questions about the start of the conclave have swirled ever since Benedict announced on Feb. 11 that he would retire, the first pontiff in 600 years to abdicate rather than stay in office until death.
As a result, his decision has created a host of questions about how the Vatican will proceed, given that its procedures for the so-called "sede vacante" — or vacant seat — period between papacies won't begin with a pope's death.
Lombardi also gave more details about Benedict's final audiences and plans for retirement, saying already 35,000 people have requested tickets for his final general audience to be held in St. Peter's Square on Feb. 27.
He said Benedict would spend about two months in the papal summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo south of Rome immediately after his abdication, to allow enough time for renovations to be completed on his retirement home — a converted monastery inside the Vatican walls.
That means Benedict would be expected to return to the Vatican, no longer as pope, around the end of April or beginning of May, Lombardi said.
He was asked if and when the pope would meet with his successor and whether he would participate in his installation Mass; like many open questions about the end of Benedict's papacy, both issues simply haven't yet been resolved, Lombardi said.