With the uncommon exit of Pope Benedict XVI fixed for February 28, the conclave to elect the next Pope could start between March 15 and 19, the Vatican has said.
“If everything goes normally, it could be envisioned that the conclave begins between 15 and 19 March,” Vatican spokesperson, Federico Lombardi, said. “At the moment, we cannot give an exact date because it falls to the cardinals to determine it.”
The Papacy will become vacant at 8 p.m. on February 28, when Pope Benedict’s resignation goes into effect.
According to existing conclave law, the conclave cannot start until 15 days after the Papacy becomes vacant, to allow all the cardinal-electors enough time to arrive in Rome.
The laws governing conclaves were laid down in 1996 in John Paul II’s apostolic constitution and modified by Pope Benedict.
Existing law also states that conclave must begin within 20 days of his date of resignation. This 15-20 day window corresponds to the conclave beginning as early as March 15 and as late as March 20.
When Pope Benedict XVI leaves office, 117 cardinals will be eligible to elect the successor to the Holy See. All the cardinals who are below the age of 80 will come to Rome to participate in the conclave. 67 of the 117 of these cardinal-electors were appointed by Pope Benedict himself.
Under rules re-established by Pope Benedict in 2007, the new Pope must be elected by a two-thirds majority of voting cardinals.
Recent conclaves have concluded quickly. Pope Benedict was elected in a 2005 conclave that lasted only two days. John Paul II was elected in 1978 after a three-day long conclave.