Pope Benedict XVI has changed Church law allowing cardinals to vote earlier for the new Pope, provided that they are all in Rome.

"Pope Benedict XVI allows for the College of Cardinals to begin the Conclave before fifteen days have passed from the beginning of the sede vacante, providing that all voting cardinals are present," said Archbishop Pier Luigi Celata Feb. 25 at the Holy See's press office.

The Pope's Feb. 25 "motu proprio," a decree written on his own initiative, means that the cardinals will no longer have to wait 15 days to elect the new head of the Church.

"The modification also provides that the conclave must begin no more than 20 days after the beginning of the sede vacante, even if all the electors are not present," Archbishop Celata added.

But the exact date when the voting will begin remains unknown until the cardinals hold their initial general meetings, according to the Holy See's press office director, Father Federico Lombardi.

Fr. Lombardi also said that the cardinals may not announce the date of the conclave until after they meet a second time.

Pope Benedict's declaration modified Bl. John Paul II's "Universi Dominici Gregis," a 1996 Apostolic Constitution amendment by John Paul II which also modified rules on the conclave.

Benedict XVI's new regulations are not his first adjustments to the conclave rules. In 2007 he changed the law so that a two-thirds majority instead of simple majority would be required for electing a new Pope.

Another change says that the oath of secrecy is extended to other people, which include two "trustworthy technicians."

These technicians "have the task of assisting the competent officers of the College (of Cardinals) in assuring that no audio-visual equipment for recording or transmitting has been installed by anyone in the areas mentioned, and particularly in the Sistine Chapel itself, where the acts of election are carried out."

Cardinals can now also choose to either walk or be driven from St. Martha House, where they will be sleeping, to the Sistine Chapel, where they will vote.

A third major change is the punishment for whoever breaches the oath of secrecy.

"The punishment for any violation of the oath of secrecy is to be excommunication," Archbishop Celata said.

The previous law said the penalty was determined by the Pope who was elected.