Conclave to decide next pope to start after March 15 - Vatican

VATICAN CITY Wed Feb 13, 2013 12:23pm GMT

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The conclave to decide the successor to Pope Benedict will start as early as March 15, the Vatican said on Wednesday.

The conclave, when cardinals gather to elect a new pope, will start between 15 and 20 days from when the papal seat is vacated on February 28, Vatican Spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told a news conference.

Pope Benedict stunned the Church on Monday when he announced the first papal abdication in centuries. Lombardi said Catholics should not be disoriented by Benedict's decision.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella, writing by Naomi O'Leary; editing by Barry Moody)