While Pope Benedict Faces the Crowds for the Last Time, the Vatican Faces Confusion Over Successor

4798While Pope Benedict slips away to a Lenten retreat, the Vatican struggles to determine whether it can legally speed up the process for choosing his successor. That's a bad idea, experts say.

In one of his lat public appearances before his upcoming resignation, Pope Benedict XVI delivers his blessing from the window of his private studio overlooking St. Peter's Square on February 17, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. (Photo: Franco Origlia, Getty Images)
Massive crowds jammed St. Peter's Square Sunday morning for one of the last public appearances of Pope Benedict XVI.

The 85-year-old pontiff blessed tens of thousands of pilgrims and Romans. They cheered as he asked for their prayers and thanks them for their "affection and spiritual closeness."

Sunday night he'll begin a Lenten retreat, leaving behind a world of speculation, rumors and conspiracy theories of why he's really resigned and who will replace him next month.

The Vatican's vague announcements feed the fire. The latest was spokesman Rev. Frederico Lombardi comments Friday that they were examining whether they can legally speed up the election for Benedict's successor.

Current church law is clear that a conclave is to be held no earlier than 15 days after the papacy is vacated.So a change would require finding a loophole in the densely woven canon laws on conclaves-- or getting a dispensation. Then it would be a frantic push to racewalk a new pontiff up the nave of St. Peter's for his installation so he'd be in place for Palm Sunday, March 24.

Bad idea, says political scientist and Vatican expert Rev. Thomas Reese. Among his reasons rushing "would be a mistake," Reese says:

-- "Church law should not be changed on a whim. Only the pope can change the rules; once he resigns, no one can change the rules.

-- "If the pope does change the rules before he resigns, which he can, the media will immediately be filled with conspiracy theories opining how this favors one candidate over another. The church does not need this."

-- Since the cardinals are scattered around the world, a short time period to the election tilts the deck in favor of those who are based in Rome, in the curia, the massive medieval bureaucracy of the church, who are "operating on their home turf. They are the ones who know all of the other cardinals because they all visit Rome."

Already, one of the papabile (Italian for people considered potential successors) Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, has a showcase for speaking to his brethren. He will give the homily and set the itinerary for prayers during the week long retreat for the pope and the curia, and the Vatican affiliated paper, L'Osservatore Romano, will publish his comments o those medications.

Source: USA Today | Cathy Lynn Grossman
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