By now all of you have heard the news that Pope Benedict is going to resign his office on February 28th at 8:00 PM Roman Time (2:00 PM our time in Indiana).
What does this mean? It means that at that precise hour the See of Rome will become vacant. The norms that can be found in Universi Dominic Gregis are to be followed.
These norms are the special legislation that govern the death of the Roman Pontiff, the interim government, and the election of the new Roman Pontiff. In these norms there is only brief mention of the possibility of resignation. So, unless the Pope issues new norms in the meantime, it would seem to me that these norms will become active, and the rules that kick in when the pope dies will begin at that precise moment.
Someone asked me recently, does this mean we are shepherd-less? No. First of all, we are all still under the care and direction of our local bishop. Remember that the local bishop is a true pastor, he is not just a branch manager for the pope. So, we still look to the bishop for his leadership.
Secondly, it is true that there will be no Pope for a period of time. As a result, no name will be mentioned in the Eucharistic prayer at the place where the Pope's name is usually mentioned, only the local bishop will be mentioned (if you live in a diocese where there is currently a vacancy, neither name will be mentioned, odd isn't it?).
However, the governance of the Universal Church is taken up by the College of Cardinals. They will begin meeting immediately following the pope's resignation. It will be their job to guide the church in this interregnum period. However, one principle is to be maintained: sede vacante, nihil innovatur. In other words, while the See is vacant, nothing is to be changed. In fact, in Universi Dominici Gregis, John Paul II proclaimed that any action that the College of Cardinals undertakes that is properly seen as the responsibility of the pope alone is rendered absolutely invalid.
Normally, when the college of Cardinals has this responsibility there are 2 major tasks for them to care for. First, they are to conduct the funeral rights of the deceased Pontiff. However, in this case that would not apply obviously. Second, they are to make all of the necessary preparations for the Conclave that will elect the successor of the apostle Peter.
This conclave is to be held no earlier than 15 days after the vacancy and no later than 20 days. Unless the pope issues norms to the contrary, the conclave cannot begin this year until March 15th.
It takes a 2/3 majority to elect the Roman Pontiff. Only 1 ballot will be held on the first day, with 2 ballots per day after that. My completely amateurish prediction is that it will be within 5 days.
People have asked me who I think will be elected. I think it will not be me. Other than that, who knows! Let's just pray that the Holy Spirit guides the election process.
God bless Pope Benedict and the College of Cardinals.