Rome, February 20 - A Roman scholar suggests that Pope Benedict XVI has the authority to shorten the period of time before the conclave of cardinals meets to elect his successor, for one occasion only. Benedict, who shocked the world last week when he announced he would retire on February 28, could issue a one-time decree that would apply only to the upcoming conclave, said Cesare Mirabelli, president emeritus of Italy's Constitutional Court. This would be "an ad hoc measure to shorten the time" which Vatican law says is needed to bring together the 117-member conclave of cardinals to elect a new pope, says Mirabelli, who is also a professor of ecclesiastical law at the University of Rome Tor Vergata. At present, the conclave to elect the next pope is expected to begin 15 to 20 days after Benedict XVI steps down on February 28, when cardinals will gather from around the world for the vote. The current situation is "exceptional" because a pope has not retired in roughly 600 years and so in this case, cardinals have been given an unusual amount of notice that a replacement must be found, says Mirabelli. Traditionally, popes do not retire but instead they die in office, triggering a sudden rush to assemble the conclave of cardinals to elect a new pope. For this reason, the usual waiting period of 15 to 20 days before a conclave is assembled "could reasonably be reduced," said Mirabelli. The conclave procedures for electing the next pope follow strict guidelines to ensure that the vote is valid and remains secret. But cardinals have already begun informal talks about what sort of person the next pope should be, and many are already in Rome. Some reports have suggested the Church may want to accelerate proceedings in order have a new pope installed before Palm Sunday on March 24, so he can preside at the Holy Week services leading up to Easter. Earlier on Wednesday Vatican Spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said Benedict may issue a document on the rules of the conclave to elect his successor before he steps down. Lombardi said Benedict may issue a 'motu proprio', a document that popes can use to make minor changes to Church law or procedure. The spokesman did not rule out the possibility that the motu proprio would concern changes so that the conclave could take place earlier than mid-March.
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di Giovanni Pastore