Come the evening of 28 February, the Church will have to make do without a Supreme Pontiff. For how long, we don’t know, and it is certainly a different situation than the last time this happened.
A pope stepping down, a conclave without mourning a deceased Holy Father, but with the all the chaos, temporary suspensions of functions and preparations to gather all the cardinals and prepare the Sistine Chapel that come with the election of a new pope.
So what can we expect in the coming weeks, which will certainly be interesting, emotional and exciting?
Things will change at the time that Pope Benedict XVI has indicated: 8pm on Thursday 28 February. At that time, he will no longer be pope, and the See of Peter will be officially vacant. Pope Benedict XVI will then no longer be called that, although it remains to be seen how we will refer to him in the future. The former Pope will remove to Castel Gandolfo and, at a later date, he will take up residence in a monastery within the Vatican walls.
A limited set of duties normally held by the Pope, will fall to the College of Cardinals. The heads of the Curial offices will resign as well, although they will be reinstated by the new pope, as is standard. The exceptions are Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone as Camerlengo – he will continue to manage the properties of the Church; Cardinal Manuel Monteiro de Castro as Major Penitentiary; and all Holy See representatives across the world. The vicars-general of the Diocese of Rome, Cardinals Angelo Comastri and Agostino Vallini, will also continue in their pastoral duties.
The major event of the sede vacante will of course be the conclave to elect the new Pope. During today’s press briefing, Fr. Federico Lombardi said that this will take place in mid-March, and we’ll have a new Pope before Easter. Barring any deaths, 117 cardinal electors will travel to Rome to participate in the conclave.
Several cardinals and other officials will have specific duties in the conclave. The Dean of the College Cardinals, being over 80, will not be present, so his duties will be taken over by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re. Also accompanying the cardinals will be Msgr. Guido Marini, the Papal Master of Ceremonies. He will lock the door of the Sistine Chapel, after calling “Extra omnes!”, “Everybody (who is not an elector), out!”. Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, the secretary of the College of Cardinals, will also be present. Neither of them will, however, attend the actual voting.
The conclave may take several days and will take place in utter secrecy. Although the electors are not obliged to elect one of their own, they most probably will. On this page I provide a list of members of the College of Cardinals. The names in bold are those of cardinal electors at this moment. One name will be removed from that list, as Cardinal Lubomyr Husar will reach the age of 80 before the Pope’s retirement. A closer look at the electors and some guesses about the future will follow later.
Photo credit:  Visibly aged since his election, Pope Benedict pictured during a visit to a seminary in Rome, last week.