The rules say the conclave has to begin 15 to 20 days after the death of the Pope. In the current case, of course, there is no death of the Pope, and thus no need for the traditional Novemdiales period of nine days’ mourning; this, combined with the fact that the world’s cardinals were given ample (17 days) notice of a vacancy in the papal office, made me think it reasonable that the cardinals could move speedily to an election, in the first couple of weeks of March. But Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi says the 15-to-20-day clock will start running on the Pope’s actual resignation day, February 28; so the election will begin between March 15 and March 20.
It is of course possible that, immediately after the Pope’s resignation, the cardinals will decide to amend the rules to take account of the unusual circumstances. More likely, they will take the extra time for deliberation and discussion of who should be elected — which increases the likelihood of a bold and surprising choice. Cardinals electing a Pope are a conservative bunch, who don’t want to do anything rash and risky; they will resist doing something bold out of fear that they are being stampeded into an act of imprudence. The extra couple of weeks gives them some more time to reflect on the wisdom of their choice, and thus increases their comfort level with the decision they’re making. Still, the usual minimum 15 days, plus the unusual extra 17 days of advance notice, means that they will start on the early side of the 15-to-20-day window: March 15. One ballot on Friday, March 15, followed by four on Saturday, March 16, and four on every successive day until a Pope is elected.
It is less likely for a Pope to be elected on the first full day of balloting (though, in the past century, Ratzinger, Luciani, and Pacelli were), so the Pope will probably be elected on the second full day, which is Sunday, March 17 — yes, St. Patrick’s Day. So will the cardinals dial O for O’Malley? Cardinal O’Malley is indeed highly respected, but probably won’t get the nod. Still, the cardinals might remember that everybody is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, so whatever happens, the Catholic Church will have its first Irish Pope . . .