The official notice of the sede vacante will be sent to the cardinals on March 1. Normally canon law dictates that there be a 15- to 20-day waiting period before commencing the conclave; however, because this papacy is ending in a pre-announced resignation, and not in the pope's death, the date for beginning the conclave may be moved forward.
To shed light on Pope Benedict's resignation, the first to take place in more than half a millennia, Reverend Davide Cito, professor of Canon Law at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, spoke with ZENIT about what such a resignation means in terms of canon law, and shed light on the Conclave soon to come.
ZENIT: What we are witnessing in terms of canon law?
Professor Cito: In terms of canon law, we are witnessing the withdrawal from an ecclesiastical office. But this is a very particular ecclesiastical office, because it is the office of the Pope, the Bishop of Rome. In its dynamic, it stresses what was established by Boniface VIII and then in 1917 and 1983 [the former promulgated the “Regulae iuris”, rules for interpreting Canon Law, the latter are the years when the two most recent Codes of Canon Law were promulgated]: the ecclesiastical office of the Supreme Pontiff is the only one that can be exercised in a free and clear way, and its waiver does not need to be accepted by anyone. Although the Pope, in a sense, wanted it to be accepted, received graciously by God.
ZENIT: We are within weeks of the Cardinals coming together to elect a new pope. What will happen during the Conclave?
Professor Cito: The Conclave is the meeting of cardinals who elect the pope. For more than a thousand years, this election has been the cardinals' responsibility. The term 'conclave' originated when the cardinals were locked by key (cum clavem) in Viterbo, until they decided to elect the Pope. Today the Conclave is preceded by the General Congregations, in which the cardinals meet and talk, before closing themselves in the Sistine Chapel, where they decide – in a free and secret vote – who will be the new Bishop of Rome.
The Conclave, after all, means one thing: it is true that there may be different opinions among the cardinals, but in the end the Pope who will come out will be the Pope of all, and if the secrecy of the voting were not maintained, he would lose his authority.
Not only is he the Pope of all, he is also supported by the Holy Spirit. His is not merely a human dimension, but is above all a spiritual one: he is the one who will be assisted by the Holy Spirit to carry out his office as successor of Peter on the See of Rome.
ZENIT: How can you explain the resignation and forthcoming Conclave to those who are not familiar with the current situation?
Professor Cito: There are some things we do not know; the future will make them known to us. What we can do is to be united to Pope Benedict XVI, and to the one who will come after him, remembering that the papacy is not simply a job or an office, but rather means being the successor of Peter on the See of Rome. So what will happen in the future I cannot say, partly because the future effects are unknown. Certainly the affection and love that we have felt for Pope Benedict XVI should be the same for the Pope to come, always thanking the Lord who, through the Holy Spirit, on the chair of Peter gives us so many beautiful examples of fidelity, love and service to the Church.