New Pope Could Be in by Palm Sunday
PHOTO: Pope Benedict XVI delivers his Urbi et Orbi message and blessing from the central balcony of St. Peters Basilica at the end of the Easter Mass, April, 2012, in Vatican City, Vatican.

L'Osservatore Romano Vatican Pool/Getty Images

ROME - The conclave to elect a new pope might begin sooner than expected, the Vatican said today, meaning Roman Catholics could have a new pontiff well before Easter.

"This time and situation is a bit different from last time," Father Federico Lombardi said.

Church rules say a conclave must begin 15 to 20 days after the seat becomes vacant after a period of mourning.

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This time there's no need to mourn; because the vacancy is not because of the pope's death, but because Benedict is resigning as of Feb. 28, the cardinals may have room to accelerate the schedule.

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Speeding up the process could potentially give the Church a new pope in time for Holy Week, the most important days of the church calendar.

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He could be formally installed at the Vatican in time to celebrate Palm Sunday, March 24; Good Friday, March 29; and Easter, March 31.

Cardinals would also be able to return to their archdiocese to celebrate Holy Week with their communities.

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