Pope may bring forward election conclave: Vatican

Pope Benedict XVI may issue a decree to bring forward the start date for a conclave of cardinals to elect his successor to earlier in March, the Vatican said Wednesday.

He may, however, stop short of setting a formal framework for future resignations.

"The pope is considering a Motu Proprio (decree) in the coming days... to clarify a few specific aspects of the apostolic constitution on the conclave," spokesman Federico Lombardi said.

It would be up to the pope to judge whether it was "necessary and opportune" to intervene on when the meeting to elect his own successor should begin, Lombardi said.

Historian Ambrogio Piazzoni said "the pope is the only one who can legislate until the last minute".

The decree would have to come before Benedict formally resigns his powers on February 28 at 1900 GMT. He will become only the second pope to resign of his own free will in the Church's 2,000-year history.

The Apostolic Constitution promulgated in 1996 by Benedict's predecessor, the late pope John Paul II, states the conclave must begin between 15 and 20 days after the start of the popeless "Sede Vacante" ("Vacant Seat") interregnum, usually after the death of a pope.

The delay is normally to allow time for cardinals from around the world to gather in Rome following the death of a pope and to organise the funeral.

The period of mourning is normally set at nine days.

The current version of the constitution does allow the cardinals some leeway in "interpreting doubtful or controversial points" -- except for the election -- as long as "a majority of cardinals agrees."

In meetings known as "congregations" starting on March 1, cardinals could therefore themselves agree to bring forward the start of the conclave.

Lombardi earlier had said the conclave would likely start on March 15, 16, 17, 18 or 19, stating there was no reason to alter the current rules.

But on Saturday he signalled that some cardinals had asked for the date to be brought forward, arguing that many of them were already in Rome.

Many cardinals are to attend a final audience with the pope on February 28, just hours before he retires to a life of quiet contemplation initially at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo and then in a Vatican monastery.

The conclave is expected to bring together the world's 117 "cardinal electors" and meets in secret in the Sistine Chapel until a two-thirds majority is found in favour of a candidate to be the pope.

Bringing forward the date of the start of the conclave would help prevent any overlap with Easter, which this year falls on March 31, and the preceding Holy Week, which begins on March 24.

The Christian calendar's Easter holiday, which marks the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is an important time of prayer and spiritual renewal for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.

Some cardinals have cautioned that since there are no clear favourites for the succession this time around, the conclave could take longer than the two days it took them to elect Benedict.

Benedict is on a spiritual retreat all this week and has been out of the public eye since celebrating his Angelus prayers on Sunday.

I.Media, a news agency specialising in Vatican affairs, said that the papal decree may try to avoid a reference to papal resignations so as not to set a formal legal precedent for Benedict's own decision to step down, which shocked many in the Vatican hierarchy.

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