New pope may be chosen by mid-March

The conclave to choose Pope Benedict’s successor could start earlier than expected, giving the Church a new leader by mid-March.

Less than two weeks away from a historic papal resignation, the Vatican also stressed again that the Pope was not abandoning the Church in times of difficulties and urged the faithful to trust in God and in the next pope.

Some 117 cardinals under the age of 80 will be eligible to enter the secretive conclave to elect Benedict’s successor. Church rules say the conclave has to start 15-20 days after the papacy becomes vacant, which it will on Feb 28.

But since the Church is now dealing with an announced resignation and not a sudden death, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the Vatican would be “interpreting” the law to see if it could start earlier.

Cardinals around the world have already begun informal consultations by phone and email to construct a profile of the man they think would be best suited to lead the Church in a period of continuing crisis.

The Vatican appears to be aiming to have a new pope elected and then formally installed in a solemn ceremony before Palm Sunday on Mar 24 so he can preside at Holy Week services leading to Easter.

Meanwhile, new details emerged on Saturday about the state of Benedict’s health in the months before his shock decision.

Peter Seewald, a German journalist who wrote a book with the Pope in 2010 in which Benedict first floated the possibility of resigning, visited him again about 10 weeks ago and asked what else could be expected from his papacy.

According to excepts published in the German magazine Focus, the Pope answered: “From me? Not much from me. I’m an old man and the strength is ebbing. I think what I’ve done is enough.”

Asked if he was considering resigning, the Pope said: “That depends on how much my physical strength will force me to that.”

Seewald said he was alarmed about the Pope’s health.

“His hearing had deteriorated. He couldn’t see with his left eye. His body had become so thin that the tailors had difficulty in keeping up with newly fitted clothes...

“I’d never seen him so exhausted-looking, so worn down.”

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