The secret conclave to elect a new Pope could be held earlier than originally planned to allow the future pontiff to prepare for Easter. Pope Benedict XVI steps down on February 28 and the vote for the top job may begin on March 10.
Vatican sources say between 15 and 20 days must pass after the end of the pontificate before the conclave meets to elect a new Pope. However, once the former pontiff leaves the cardinals could vote to begin the conclave in the hope of installing a new Pope by March 19. The Sistine Chapel will remain open to tourists until February 28.
In his announcement, Benedict said his strength in recent months "has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me".
In the church, bishops are forced to resign at the age of 75, and cardinals over 80 are barred from voting in a conclave to elect a new Pope. It's only Popes who are expected to rule for life. Now, the first papal resignation in 600 years could help set a modern precedent ensuring that Popes, like other leaders with crushing responsibilities, have the mental and physical vigour to carry out the job.