Pope Benedict XVI. (Getty Images)
Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY
The Vatican hinted Wednesday that Pope Benedict XVI could issue a letter in the last eight days of his pontificate that sets new procedures for electing his successor.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the pope -- the only person with the power to change canon law by fiat -- might send out a papal letter this week before his resignation takes effect Feb. 28.
But, according to Vatican press office, Lombardi was vague. He said he did not know if the pope would shift the law setting the date for the conclave -- but said the pope's letter might offer "clarifications" on an unnamed subject.
"I suspect they are still consulting with canon lawyers" on the legality of changing the conclave date, said church historian Matthew Bunson.
Until now, many experts have said the governing church rules concerning the election of the next pope strictly called for a conclave 15 to 20 days after the throne of St. Peter was vacant.
But canon law was designed to deal with the death, not the resignation, of a pope. The timing was to allow all the eligible electors -- cardinals under the age of 80 by the conclave starting day -- to reach Rome for a funeral and then gather in the Sistine Chapel for the secret voting.
By March 1, there will be 117 electors and if the conclave starts after March 5 there will be 116.
The argument for speeding up the process is that Benedict plans a farewell meeting with the cardinals on Feb. 28 before he flies off by helicopter to rest in private at Castel Gondolfo, the papal retreat. So everyone already will be in town.
There's no need to wait 15 days, Ambrogio Piazzoni, the vice prefect of the Vatican library, told the Associated Press as he parsed the language of the law. "The phrase 'must wait' doesn't say that you can't start before 15 days."
The pressure is on to get a new pope in place before Palm Sunday, March 24. But the timing is also complicated by the solemnity of Lent when tradition frowns on celebrations such as the installation of a new pope. The only day that could be an exception is March 19, the Feast of St. Joseph. But electors would need to get into the conclave, and pick the next pope in time.