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Papal conclave may begin earlier than expected

| Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013, 7:27 p.m.

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican raised the possibility Saturday that the conclave to elect the next pope might start sooner than March 15, the earliest date possible under rules that require a 15- to 20-day waiting period after the papacy becomes vacant.

Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said that rules on papal succession are open to interpretation and that “this is a question that people are discussing.”

Any change to the law itself would have to be approved by the pope before he resigns.

But if Vatican officials determine that the matter is just a question of interpreting the existing law, “it is possible that church authorities can prepare a proposal to be taken up by the cardinals on the first day after the papal vacancy” to move up the start of the conclave, Lombardi said.

The 15- to 20-day waiting period is in place to allow time for all cardinals who don't live in Rome to arrive, as what's happened in the last 600 years when a pope dies. But in this case the cardinals know that this pontificate will end Feb. 28, with the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, and therefore can get to Rome in plenty of time to take part in the conclave, Lombardi said.

The date of the conclave's start is important because Holy Week begins March 24, with Palm Sunday Mass followed by Easter Sunday on March 31. In order to have a new pope in place in time for the most solemn liturgical period on the church calendar, he would need to be installed by Sunday, March 17 — the installation Mass is traditionally held on a Sunday. Given the tight time frame, speculation has mounted that some arrangement would be made to start the conclave earlier.

“In this moment we are not prepared,” said Cardinal Franc Rode, the former head of the Vatican's office for religious orders, who will vote in the conclave. “We have not been able to make predictions, strategies, plans, candidates. It is too early, but we will get there. In two or three weeks things will be put in place.”

Meanwhile, a German journalist who has published several interviews with Benedict over the years suggested that the pope strongly foreshadowed his retirement during an August conversation.

Peter Seewald said in an article for the German weekly Focus published Saturday that the pontiff had told him that his strength was diminishing and “not much more” could be expected from him as pope.

“I am an old man and my strength is running out,” Seewald quoted the pope as saying. “And I think what I have done is enough.”

Benedict, however, appeared in good form on Saturday for some of his final audiences. He met with the Guatemalan president, a group of visiting Italian bishops, and had his farewell audience with Italian Premier Mario Monti.

“He was in good condition,” Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina told reporters afterward. “He didn't seem tired, rather smiling, lively — and happy and very clear in his decision to resign.”

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