Conclave to elect new pope not before March 15
VATICAN CITY (UPDATED) - Pope Benedict XVI made his first public appearance on Wednesday, February 13, since his shock resignation announcement, asking thousands of cheering pilgrims at the Vatican to "keep praying for me".
The frail 85-year-old pontiff was greeted by a standing ovation and chants of "Benedetto", his name in Italian, at his weekly audience, with a prominent banner reading "Thank You, Holiness".
Benedict said he had made his momentous decision "for the good of the Church".
"Keep praying for me, for the Church and for the future pope," he said.
Wearing his workaday white cassock and skullcap, the pontiff -- the first to resign voluntarily in 700 years -- said he could feel the faithful's love "almost physically in these difficult days".
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi announced that cardinal electors will meet in mid-March to choose Benedict's successor.
"The beginning of the conclave cannot be before March 15," Lombardi told the Vatican press corps. "We have to expect a conclave starting on the 15th, 16th, 17th 18th or 19th."
The secret conclave held in the Sistine Chapel under Michelangelo's famed ceiling frescoes -- deliberations that normally last a few days -- should produce a new pope in time for Easter.
As rumours fly over front-runners, commentators have said age may be a key factor in selecting a new pope, with 117 cardinals eligible to vote for one of their peers.
While some hope Africa or Asia could yield the next pontiff, others have tipped high-flying European or north American cardinals.
Benedict announced on Monday that he would resign because his advanced age meant he had no longer had the strength to carry out his duties as spiritual leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
Although the Vatican has denied specific health problems influenced his decision, it said Tuesday he had a secret operation to remove batteries in his pacemaker three months ago.
Benedict will step down on February 28, when Lombardi said a helicopter will whisk him away to the pope's summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, outside Rome. - Rappler.com