Pope election could start March 10th
The Vatican said today that the conclave to choose the successor to Pope Benedict could start before March 15th if enough cardinals are in Rome to elect him.
For the first time, the Vatican today conceded that the conclave to elect the successor to Pope Benedict XVI may start earlier than widely anticipated.
According to the Apostolic Constitution which rules on such matters, the Conclave should begin between the 15th and 19th of March. It may, however, now start on March 10th.
At a briefing in the Vatican this morning, senior Holy See spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi said that the question of an earlier than anticipated start was now under consideration. He said that, given the unprecedented events that have led to this Conclave, the Apostolic Constitution may be “interpreted”, leading to an earlier start.
The Apostolic Constitution which governs the “interregnum” period between one pontificate and the next calls for the Conclave to begin within 20 days but not before 15 days, following the declaration of “sede vacante” or empty seat, i.e. no Pope.
Were that ruling to be followed to the letter, then the Conclave should begin between the 15th and 19th of March, given that the period of “sede vacante” starts at 8.00 in the evening of February 28th when Benedict formally resigns.
And there is the rub. For the last 600 years, the sede vacante period takes its start-up date from the day the Pope dies. In this case, as the whole world knows, Benedict has not died but rather is resigning.
The extended sede vacante or interregnum period was created for two obvious reasons - firstly, to allow the Church and the faithful a period of mourning and secondly, to give the Cardinals time to make it to Rome for the conclave.
Given the speed of modern travel and given, above all, that this time there is no period of mourning; it only makes sense to anticipate the whole electoral process. On top of all that, there is the danger that were a mid-March conclave to prove long and intractable, then it might run into Holy Week which this year begins on March 24th, Palm Sunday.
Fr Lombardi could give no definitive proposed date for the earlier start but Vatican insiders suggest that Sunday March 10th could be a logical date, allowing the Cardinals to hold the Pro Eligendo Romano Pontefice mass which initiates a Conclave on the Sunday and then settle down to business on Monday morning.
The papal spokesman was asked if any changes to the Apostolic Constitution with regard to the timing of the Conclave or anything else were not still the prerogative of Pope Benedict who remains Pontiff with all his powers intact until the evening of February 28th. With Jesuitic subtlety (he is a Jesuit) the papal spokesman argued that the timetable change was not so much a “modification” of the norm as an “interpretation” of it.
Asked again why Benedict had chosen to live out his retirement within the walls of the Vatican, alongside his successor, Father Lombardi said that the move was only “natural” and “absolutely normal”, adding that he doubted if Benedict had ever considered any other solution. For a start, he said, as an 86 year old, it makes no sense to move into a different home and environment.
Secondly, his presence in the Vatican will be a keen manifestation of “support, solidarity and continuity” for his successor.
The Papal spokesman also said that Benedict will first stay for two months at the papal summer residence in Castelgandolfo, while waiting for renovations to be carried out to the Mater Ecclesiae monastery in the Vatican which will become his permanent home.