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 current rules that require a 15- to 20-day waiting period after the papacy becomes vacant.
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said that Vatican 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 Pope Benedict XVI 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, Father 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, under the usual circumstance of a pope dying. But in this case the cardinals already know that this pontificate will end Feb. 28, with the resignation of Pope Benedict, and therefore can get to Rome in plenty of time to take part in the conclave, Father 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, because of the strong tradition to hold installation Mass on a Sunday. Given the tight time frame, speculation has mounted that some arrangement would be made to start the conclave earlier than a strict reading of the law would allow.
Questions about the start of the conclave have swirled since Pope Benedict stunned the world last Monday by announcing that he would retire, the first pontiff in 600 years to abdicate rather than stay in office until death. His decision has created a host of questions about how the Vatican will proceed, given that its plans for the so-called "sede vacante" -- or vacant seat -- period between papacies are based on the process starting with a papal death.
"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."
Pope Benedict appeared in good form 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."
Father Lombardi also gave more details about Pope Benedict's final public audiences and plans for retirement, saying already 35,000 people had requested tickets for his final general audience to be held Feb. 27 in St. Peter's Square.
He said Pope Benedict would spend about two months in the papal summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo south of Rome immediately after his abdication, to allow enough time for renovations to be completed on his retirement home -- a converted monastery inside the Vatican walls.
That means Pope Benedict would be expected to return to the Vatican, no longer as pope, around the end of April or beginning of May, Father Lombardi said.
He was asked if and when the pope would meet with his successor and whether he would participate in his installation Mass. Like many open questions about the end of Pope Benedict's papacy, Father Lombardi said, both issues simply haven't been resolved.
Meanwhile, the Vatican was drawn into a new controversy Friday after acknowledging that its bank's new president is also chairman of a shipbuilder making warships -- a significant conflict for an institution that has long shunned ties to military manufacturing.
The Vatican announced to great fanfare that Pope Benedict had signed off on one of the last major appointments of his papacy, approving Ernst von Freyberg as president of the Vatican's bank, officially known as the Institute for Religious Works.
Father Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman was caught off-guard, though, when a journalist noted that the German shipbuilding firm Mr. von Freyberg chairs, Blohm + Voss, is known for its military ship construction.
Father Lombardi demurred and defended the selection. He later issued a statement saying Mr. von Freyberg chairs a civilian branch of Blohm + Voss, which repairs and transforms cruise ships and builds yachts -- but that the company is currently part of a consortium that is building four frigates for the German navy.
The Vatican and its bank have deep-rooted traditions of steering clear of investments in companies that manufacture weapons or contraceptives, in line with Roman Catholic Church teaching.
Michael Brasse, spokesman for Blohm + Voss in Hamburg, said that Mr. von Freyberg is chairman of the executive board of Blohm + Voss Shipyards, a unit that concentrates on building civilian ships.
But before Blohm + Voss Shipyards and other non-military units of Blohm + Voss were sold in 2011 to Star Capital Partners, its military shipbuilding unit, Blohm + Voss Naval, had contracted with the German Defense Ministry for four new frigates. Blohm + Voss Naval subcontracted the actual construction of those vessels to Blohm + Voss Shipyards.
Though Blohm + Voss Naval is now known as ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems GmbH, and is entirely separate from the other Blohm + Voss units, the Shipyards unit is still constructing the frigates under the legacy contract.
After they are built, however, the company plans to concentrate entirely on non-military ships. Mr. von Freyberg will remain its chairman while working for the Vatican.