Pope Benedict studying edict to change conclave rules

Pope Benedict
Image caption The Pope is the first pontiff to resign rather than die in office for hundreds of years

Pope Benedict XVI is considering changes to Catholic Church rules which may speed up the process to select his successor, the Vatican says.

A spokesman said the Pope may issue a decree in the next few days regarding the conclave, the gathering of cardinals to choose the next pontiff.

Pope Benedict announced last week that he would resign on 28 February.

Under current rules the conclave should not start before 15 March, but there has been pressure to bring it forward.

Church officials want a successor to be in place before the start of Holy Week on 24 March, the most important event in the Christian calendar.

Surprise resignation

The existing rules are set to allow time for cardinals from around the world to travel to Rome for the conclave after the papacy becomes vacant.

But Benedict was the first Pope to resign rather than die in office for hundreds of years, giving more prior warning than usual of the need for a conclave to be held.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the Pope was considering changes to two documents approved by his predecessor, but did not specify the possible alterations.

One document governs the period during which the papacy is vacant, the other gives details of the running of the conclave.

The spokesman said he did not know whether this would mean the conclave would be held earlier than anticipated.

But the BBC's Rome correspondent Alan Johnston says the possibility of bringing it forward is being widely discussed at the Vatican.

During the forthcoming conclave, there will be 117 cardinals who are eligible to take part in the series of secret votes held to choose the next pontiff.