New Pope Could Be in by Palm Sunday

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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