Vatican City

Pope Benedict XVI prepares for last general audience

Conclave may begin as soon as next week, Vatican watchers say

Pope Benedict XVI prepares for last general audience

(By Christopher Livesay) Vatican City, February 26 - With only two days before Benedict XVI steps down as pope, Vatican officials braced for an onslaught of visitors and the impending arrival of the conclave of cardinals to elect his successor, which Vatican watchers say may begin as soon as next week. The president of the Italian Bishops' conference, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, said Tuesday the conclave would be held as soon as possible following Benedict's shocking resignation with effect from February 28. "The Church in its wisdom and experience, and in accordance with a very strict code, is moving towards the earliest possible Conclave," said the archbishop of Genoa. Cardinal Bagnasco also described the moment as "historic" and invited the faithful to pray for the outgoing pope "in the midst of many other important matters, including for our country". On Monday Benedict issued an executive papal decree known as a motu proprio allowing the college of cardinals to begin the conclave before the statutory 15 days have passed from the beginning of the sede vacante (the interregnum period between the death of a pope and the election of a successor), provided all voting cardinals are in Rome. While a date will not be set until after March 1, some Vatican experts have said the conclave could begin early next week. "The actual start date is still undetermined. But I think it's going to be very early in March," Edward Peters, a Vatican consultant on Roman Catholic church law, told the Detroit Free Press. "I'm thinking the 5th or the 8th." Among the major events leading up to a new pontificate is Benedict's last general audience at the Vatican on Wednesday, which the Church predicts will draw over 50,000 people to St Peter's Square, including a number of heads of state and dignitaries from around the world. Upon formally resigning Thursday at 20:00 local time, Benedict will be called 'pope emeritus' or 'Roman pontiff emeritus', Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said Tuesday. Lombardi added that it will still be possible to address Benedict as "Your Holiness". He said the 85-year-old German would continue to wear the "simple, white" papal cassock and use shoes given to him by Mexican cobblers during a visit last year. "The pope really liked the gift of the shoes made for him by the artisans of Leon, Mexico, and he will continue to use them," Lombardi said. The spokesman confirmed that Benedict's ring of office as pope will be destroyed, according to Vatican tradition. He added that Benedict's papers have been split between documents regarding the government of the Church, "which will go to the competent archives," and his personal notes that will stay with him. Meanwhile focus continues to shift to potential successors to the throne of St Peter. The patriarch of Venice and wildcard candidate for pope praised Benedict's legacy on Tuesday in the final days of his papacy. "He is a man that has served the church through and through, and who taught us that one does not fill a post but serve the Church. We all love him very much," said Archbishop Francesco Moraglia. At just 59 and not yet a cardinal, Moraglia is considered a dark horse candidate for pope. But a large number of the prelates who held the office of Venice patriarch eventually rose to pope, three of whom did so in the last century: Pius X in 1903, John XXIII in 1958, and John Paul I in 1978. On February 11, Benedict shocked the world by announcing he would step down, becoming the first pope to do so in 600 years. Benedict, 85, blamed his advanced age, leading many of the faithful to call for a young successor.

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