Cardinal Francis George talks about the selection process of a replacement for resigning Pope Benedict XVI during a mass in Chicago on Feb. 17, 2013. (Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune)

Chicago's Cardinal Francis George said on Sunday there should be no rush to convene the conclave that elects a successor to Pope Benedict XVI because the days leading up to the election are when cardinals can learn the most about the candidates.

Once the doors of the Sistine Chapel latch and the conclave begins, the cardinals will spend almost all of their time inside praying and casting ballots, George told reporters Sunday after celebrating Mass at St. Bride parish in Chicago's South Shore neighborhood.

“The most important thing is to choose well, and we'll take the time necessary to do that,” said George, who plans to leave Chicago for Rome two days beforethe resignation of Pope Benedict XVI takes effect.

Cardinals from around the world will meet informally starting March 1 to prepare for what will be George's second papal election. He also participated in the conclave in 2005, when Benedict was elected after the death of Pope John Paul II.

“You take the time needed to make a good decision,” George said after mass, standing near a framed photo of Benedict at the back of the church. “We will go into conclave when collectively the cardinals decide that we have (had) the conversations necessary to make a good decision.”

On Saturday, a Vatican spokesman suggested the conclave could start earlier than March 15, the earliest date possible under current rules that require a 15 to 20 day window after the papacy becomes vacant.

Vatican watchers point out that the window is intended to allow for travel and traditional rites in the event of a pope's death. But this time, cardinals will be choosing the successor for a pope who has resigned, eliminating the need for a funeral and mourning period.

“The cardinals, the people by law and realistically the ones closest to the pope, have that funeral to grieve. That's not an issue this time,” said Rocco Palmo, the Philadelphia writer behind “Whispers in the Loggia,” a Web site that covers the Catholic church hierarchy. “Even for the shock of the resignation, they've had more than two weeks notice.”

Palmo said George's inclination not to rush “speaks to the sense I've heard from some that this is going to be a longer conclave than the last one because there's no clear-cut choice the way in retrospect there was in Ratzinger.”

In order for the cardinals to meet earlier, Benedict must allow for an exception to the rule before he resigns.

But the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow for the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, argued that if the pope does change the rules, conspiracy theorists will claim he favors a particular candidate.

“Let's face it. The sooner the election the better to the advantage to whoever happens to be the front-runner at the moment,” Reese said.

He also argues that a rule change would place too much power in the hands of the cardinals who reside in Rome and would make it difficult for cardinals outside of Rome, especially in the Third World, to make a fully-informed contribution.

While George said he doesn't want to rush the process, he does hope it's finished by Holy Week, seven days leading up to and including Easter. 

Indeed, Palmo said a conclave starting March 15 could push the new pope's inauguration to Palm Sunday, when the liturgy calls on congregations to proclaim “Crucify him” and “We have no king but Caesar,” lines from the traditional Passion story.

“It wouldn't mix with the inauguration of the pope,” Palmo said with a chuckle.

Predicting how long the conclave might last is impossible, George said.

“You rely upon collective discernment, so you don't go in with your mind made up,” he said. “You go in with indifference of mind and heart to try to discern, `What does God want us to do?'”

rhaggerty@tribune.com

Twitter: @RyanTHaggerty