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Conclave To Elect New Pope May Start Sooner Than Expected

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VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - FEBRUARY 14:  Pope Benedict XVI, flanked by cardinal Agostino Vallini (R) and his personal secretary Georg Ganswein (L), delivers his blessing during a meeting with parish priests of  Rome's diocese at the Paul VI Hall on February 14, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. The Pontiff will hold his last weekly public audience on February 27 at St Peter's Square after announcing his resignation earlier this week.  (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

Pope Benedict XVI, flanked by cardinal Agostino Vallini (R) and his personal secretary Georg Ganswein (L), delivers his blessing during a meeting with parish priests of Rome’s diocese at the Paul VI Hall on February 14, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

VATICAN CITY (CBS NEWS) – The Vatican is raising the possibility that the conclave to elect the next pope might start earlier than March 15, the earliest date possible under current rules that require a 15-20 day waiting period after the papacy becomes vacant.

Vatican spokesman The Rev. Federico Lombardi said top officials can study the Holy See’s constitution to determine whether such a rule change is possible. The 15-20 day rule is in place to allow time for the arrival in Rome of “all those (cardinals) who are absent.”

But Lombardi noted that the cardinals already know that this pontificate will end on Feb. 28 and can get to Rome in plenty of time. He said the Vatican rules are open to interpretation and that “this is a question that people are discussing.”

Pope Benedict XVI shocked the Catholics around the world this week, announcing he was resigning from the papacy at the end of the month because of general, age-related exhaustion. While the Vatican has said there isn’t a singular health issue causing the pope’s resignation, officials did reveal this week that the 85-year-old pontiff has a pacemaker and required a battery replacement three months ago and he hit his head during his March 2012 trip to Mexico.

Pope Benedict will reside at a convent inside the Vatican after he steps down Feb. 28. He told a gathering of parish priests in Rome that he will be “hidden to the world.”

The pope’s resignation sets in motion a complex sequence of events to elect the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church, which started Lent – the 40 day period before Easter, the most important feast in the Catholic Church – on Wednesday. Church officials would like a new pope in place by March 24, the beginning of Holy Week.

Here are the rules governing the papal election:

Cardinals eligible to vote — those under age 80 — are sequestered within Vatican City – including handing over cell phones and other devices – and take an oath of secrecy. The Cardinals meet every day in the Sistine Chapel until a new pope is elected and have no contact with the outside world until the process is complete.

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