Papal conclave may be brought forward

Pope Benedict XVI delivers his Angelus Blessing from the window of his private studio overlooking St Peter's Square last Sunday. Photograph: Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Pope Benedict XVI delivers his Angelus Blessing from the window of his private studio overlooking St Peter's Square last Sunday. Photograph: Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Wed, Feb 20, 2013, 00:00

It looks ever more likely that the conclave which will elect the successor of Pope Benedict XVI will be brought forward to March 10th.

Speaking to Vatican reporters today, senior Holy See spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said that Benedict was “considering” the idea of issuing a “Motu Proprio” (papal decree) which may change “particular points” in the Apostolic Constitution, the document which basically lays down the rules governing a Conclave.

Although Fr Lombardi could neither identify the “particular points” in question nor give a definite date for the publication the Motu Proprio, most commentators concluded that the Pope’s new decree will result in the Conclave being brought forward.

Under the terms of the Apostolic Constitution, 'Universi Dominici Gregis', issued in 1996 by John Paul II, the Conclave must begin between 15 and 20 days after the 'sede vacante', empty chair or no pope, is declared. Given that Benedict intends to officially step down at 8pm on the night of February 28th, the current constitution rules call for a conclave start on a date between March 15th and 19th.

The 15-day wait was originally designed to allow the cardinals time to both get to Rome and to attend all the events of the nine-day period of mourning which follows the death of a pope. Given modern travel and that fact that this time the pope has not died but rather has resigned, it has always seemed possible that the cardinals would anticipate the whole electoral process.

Furthermore, many of the 117 elector cardinals (under the age of 80) are expected to travel to Rome next week for Benedict’s last public audience on Wednesday February 27th. With most of the Cardinals in place, an early starts seems only logical. Furthermore, an early start should make it possible to have a new pope elected in time to celebrate the Holy Week and Easter festivities, which begin with Palm Sunday on March 24th.

Under Canon law, however, only a Pope can change the terms of an apostolic constitution. After the pope steps down, the caretaking governance of the Church is in the hands of the Camerlengo, chamberlain, in this case the current Vatican Secretary of State (prime minister), Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. In the words of one Holy See official, the Camerlengo’s role is to make sure that the electricity and phone bills are paid but not to rewrite apostolic constitutions.

For that reason, it is important that if such changes be made, they be made by Benedict himself before 8pm on Friday of next week. At a briefing last Saturday, Father Lombardi had already indicated that the conclave may well be anticipated.