Cardinal John Tong Hon - who is expected to be the first Hong Kong bishop to vote for a pontiff - is unlikely to meet outgoing Pope Benedict before he resigns next week, Tong's deputy said.
Vicar-General Michael Yeung Ming-cheung said Tong - ordained as a cardinal by Benedict last year - did not want to spend too much time "sitting and waiting in Rome" between the papal abdication, effective at 8pm on February 28, and the conclave election a couple of weeks later.
Earlier this week, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the pope was considering changing the rules so the election could be scheduled before March 15, the earliest date allowed under the current rule.
The changes could mean the conclave in the Sistine Chapel, where the 117 cardinals will secretly choose the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church, might be able to elect and install a new pope before Palm Sunday on March 24, so he can preside at Holy Week services before Easter.
Pope Benedict made the announcement that shocked the world on February 11, becoming the first leader in 600 years to step down from the Chair of Peter.
Yeung said in a press conference yesterday that he "heard" Benedict would want to meet all cardinals on the morning before he steps down, to "shake hands with them, hug them, and bid farewell to them".
But it now emerges that Tong would likely miss the historic moment, given a relatively long period of "sede vacante" which leads to the election, Yeung said.
"If the election immediately follows on March 1 or 2, this is alright," Yeung said. "But Cardinal Tong has busy affairs here in the Hong Kong diocese so he can't be sitting and waiting in Rome."
Yeung backed the plan to speed up the conclave. "The election did not result from Pope Benedict's death. It wasn't an unexpected event. So cardinals around the world are prepared to go to Rome to take part in the election," he said.
He dismissed fears an earlier election could deprive first-time electing cardinals, such as Tong, of the chance to familiarise themselves with the likely candidates.
"Cardinal Tong has some basic knowledge of every other cardinal," Yeung said. "I guess [he] would download CVs of the other cardinals from the internet [before going to the Vatican]."
Yeung said there was also talk among clerics about what to call the pope after he steps down, with "former Bishop of Rome" the most popular option so far.
Additional reporting by Reuters