Vatican City, Feb 13, 2013 / 14:17 pm
The conclave to elect the next Bishop of Rome could start between March 15 and 19, according to the director of the Holy See's Press Office.
"If everything goes normally, it could be envisioned that the conclave begins between 15 and 19 March," Father Federico Lombardi said Feb. 13.
"At the moment, we cannot give an exact date because it falls to the cardinals to determine it."
The Diocese of Rome will be "sede vacante" or vacant at 8 p.m. on Feb. 28, when Pope Benedict's resignation goes into effect.
The laws governing conclaves were laid down in 1996 in John Paul II's apostolic constitution "Universi Dominici Gregis," and were modified by Pope Benedict. According to existing 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.
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.
On Feb. 28, the day the papacy will go vacant, 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. Most of these cardinal-electors have been appointed by Pope Benedict himself – 67 of the 117.
Under rules re-established by Pope Benedict in 2007, the conclave must achieve a two-thirds majority to elect the Bishop of Rome.
Recent conclaves have concluded quickly. Pope Benedict was himself elected in a 2005 conclave that lasted only two days. John Paul II was elected in 1978 after a three-day long conclave.
Once the Diocese of Rome is vacant, nearly all offices of the Roman Curia, the administrative offices governing the Church, are suspended, and will have to be reconfirmed by the next pontiff. One of the few that continues, because of its urgent nature dealing with issues of absolution and indulgences, is the Apostolic Penitentiary.