Vatican has announced that Pope Benedict XVI has amended Roman Catholic Church law so that the conclave selecting his successor can be brought forward.
The change to the constitution means cardinals will no longer have to wait 15 days after the papacy becomes vacant before beginning the conclave.
As a result, the conclave can now start before March 15.
Pope Benedict’s resignation, the first by a pope in nearly 600 years, takes effect on Thursday, February 28.
His decision surprised many within the Catholic Church.
“I leave the College of Cardinals the possibility to bring forward the start of the conclave once all cardinals are present, or push the beginning of the election back by a few days should there be serious reasons,” the Pope said in a statement read by his spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi.
Vatican officials explained that the change was partly due to the fact that the church constitution was written principally for a conclave following the death of a pope, rather than a resignation.
The decision on the date of the beginning of the conclave will be taken by the cardinals but will not happen earlier than March 1st, officials said.
A conclave beginning in mid-March would have left little time to have a new pope installed for one of the most important periods in the Catholic calendar, as Easter Holy Week begins on March 24.
The news about the timing of the conclave comes as the Pope accepted the resignation of the Roman Catholic Church’s highest cleric in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O’Brien.
It follows allegations – which he contests – of inappropriate behavior towards priests dating from the 1980s.
Vatican officials said that his Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s resignation was linked to the fact that he was approaching his 75th birthday and the Pope was keen to accept resignations and get business going ahead of his own resignation taking effect.
Cardinal Keith O’Brien has confirmed he will not take part in the conclave to elect Benedict’s successor.
Vatican officials said that no decision had been yet taken on how the Pope should be referred to during the period between popes.