The conclave to elect the next Bishop of Rome could start between March 15 and 19, according to the director of the Holy See's Press Office, reports the Catholic News agency.
“If everything goes normally, it could be envisioned that the conclave begins between 15 and 19 March,” Father Federico Lombardi said in Wednesday.
“At the moment, we cannot give an exact date because it falls to the cardinals to determine it.”
The Diocese of Rome will be “sede vacante” or vacant at 8 pm on February 28, when Pope Benedict's resignation goes into effect.
The laws governing conclaves were laid down in 1996 in John Paul II's apostolic constitution “Universi Dominici Gregis,” and were modified by Pope Benedict. According to existing law, the conclave cannot start until 15 days after the Papacy becomes vacant, to allow all the cardinal-electors enough time to arrive in Rome.
Existing law also states that conclave must begin within 20 days of his date of resignation. This 15-20 day window corresponds to the conclave beginning as early as March 15 and as late as March 20.
On Feb. 28, the day the papacy will go vacant, 117 cardinals will be eligible to elect the successor to the Holy See. All the cardinals who are below the age of 80 will come to Rome to participate in the conclave. Most of these cardinal-electors have been appointed by Pope Benedict himself – 67 of the 117.
The BBC reports that Benedict has hinted he will withdraw into seclusion after stepping down at the end of this month. "Even if I am withdrawing into prayer, I will always be close to all of you... even if I remain hidden to the world," he told a meeting of Roman priests.
The Pope appears to be planning a complete retreat from the public eye, the BBC's Alan Johnston reports from the Vatican.
Conclave could be held in mid-March (CNA)
Benedict hints he will retire into seclusion (BBC)
Questions on Pope's lingering influence (Courier Mail)
Benedict will lose power of infallibility (Age)
Papal secretary moving with Pope (CNS)
Vatican works to control rumour mill (NCR)