VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI issued a motu proprio today, allowing the College of Cardinals to bring forward the date of the upcoming conclave as long as all voting cardinals are present.

The document, presented this afternoon at a Vatican press conference by the vice camerlengo, Archbishop Pier Luigi Celata, also introduces a series of modifications to the laws governing the interregnum period and the election of a new bishop of Rome.

The motu proprio (a papal document issued on the pope’s personal initiative) replaces certain numbered parts of the text in the governing apostolic constitution, Universi Dominici Gregis (On the Vacancy of the Apostolic See and the Election of the Roman Pontiff), which was originally promulgated by Blessed John Paul II in 1996.

In a modification to paragraph No. 37, Pope Benedict allows for the College of Cardinals to begin the conclave before the statutory 15 days have passed from the beginning of the period sede vacante (when there is no pope), provided that all voting cardinals are in Rome.

The modification also provides that the conclave must begin no more than 20 days after the beginning of the sede vacante, even if all the electors are not present.

However, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the date of the conclave still won’t be known until all the cardinals expected to vote begin holding preparation meetings after March 1, and that the decision may still take some days after that.

In another change, to No. 48 of the apostolic constitution, the oath of secrecy is extended to include the two “trustworthy technicians” who have the task of assisting the competent officers of the College of Cardinals “in assuring that no audio-visual equipment for recording or transmitting has been installed by anyone in the areas mentioned, and particularly in the Sistine Chapel itself, where the acts of the election are carried out.”

The motu proprio also states that punishment for any violation of the oath of secrecy by a non-cardinal is to be excommunication latae sententiae (one that takes effect automatically) — a change from the old text that provided for “grave penalties according to the judgment of the future pope.” Cardinals will also incur a serious but undefined penalty, according to Archbishop Celata.


Vatileaks Commission

In other news today, the Holy Father met this morning with the three cardinals in charge of a commission that has been investigating the Vatileaks scandal.  A Vatican statement said the Pope has decided “the acts of this investigation, known only to himself, remain solely at the disposition of the new pope.”

But the statement also made a point of recognizing the many Vatican officials who carry out their duties with moral rectitude. The commission’s work, the statement said, “made it possible to detect, given the limitations and imperfections of the human factor of every institution, the generosity and dedication of those who work with uprightness and generosity in the Holy See at the service of the mission entrusted by Christ to the Roman pontiff.”

The statement said the Holy Father thanked the cardinals — Julian Herranz, Jozef Tomko and Salvatore De Giorgi — for their work and expressed satisfaction for the results of the investigation.

Although the contents of the commission’s findings will remain confidential and entrusted to the next pope, Father Lombardi said the three cardinals are at liberty to share ideas and answer questions on the inquiry with other cardinals (voting and non-voting) during the discussion period prior to the conclave.

In other news, the Vatican announced today that the Pope had accepted the resignation of Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien, the archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, on age grounds.

The Scottish cardinal, who has been suffering from gout, tendered his resignation a few months ago and said in a statement that the Pope had already accepted his resignation nunc  pro tunc (now, but to take effect later) on Nov. 13, 2012. “The Holy Father has now decided that my resignation will take effect today,” he said, “and that he will appoint an apostolic administrator” to govern the archdiocese.

But the news comes after allegations of misconduct made against the cardinal, which he has strongly contested. Reports say three priests and a former priest have accused the cardinal of “inappropriate conduct” with them going back to the 1980s.

Cardinal O’Brien said in his resignation statement that he will not be taking part in the conclave so that media attention will “not be focused on me, but, rather, Pope Benedict XVI and his successor.” However, Father Lombardi said the Pope did not give any instruction on whether or not the cardinal should participate in the conclave. The College of Cardinals can also decide if a voting cardinal can miss the vote.


Contemplatives’ Prayers

Earlier today, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, wrote a letter addressed to all contemplative religious, asking them to pray for Pope Benedict XVI and the upcoming conclave. He notes that the Holy Father has asked all the faithful “to accompany him with their prayers, as he commends the Petrine ministry into the Lord’s hands, and to await with trust the arrival of the new pope.”

“In a particularly urgent way, this appeal is addressed to those chosen members of the Church who are contemplatives,” Cardinal Bertone wrote, adding that the Pope is certain that they will “provide the precious resource of that prayerful faith” that has “sustained the Church along her pilgrim path” for centuries.

“The coming conclave will thus depend in a special way on the transparent purity of your prayer and worship,” he wrote, adding that the Holy Father was “deeply appreciative” and had asked him “to thank you and to assure you of his immense love and esteem.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.