Massive crowds jammed St. Peter’s Square Sunday morning for one of the last public appearances of Pope Benedict XVI.

The 85-year-old pontiff blessed the crowd and thanked them for their prayers. Sunday night he’ll begin a Lenten retreat, leaving behind a world of speculation, rumors and conspiracy theories of why he’s really resigned and who will replace him next month.

The Vatican’s vague announcements feed the fire. The latest was spokesman Rev. Frederico Lombardi comments Friday that they were examining whether they can legally speed up the election for Benedict’s successor.

Current church law is clear that a conclave is to be held no earlier than 15 days after the papacy is vacated.So a change would require finding a loophole in the densely woven canon laws on conclaves– or getting a dispensation. Then it would be a frantic push to racewalk a new pontiff up the nave of St. Peter’s for his installation so he’d be in place for Palm Sunday, March 24.

Bad idea, says political scientist and Vatican expert Rev. Thomas Reese. Among his reasons rushing “would be a mistake,” Reese says:

— “Church law should not be changed on a whim. Only the pope can change the rules; once he resigns, no one can change the rules.

— “If the pope does change the rules before he resigns, which he can, the media will immediately be filled with conspiracy theories opining how this favors one candidate over another. The church does not need this.”

— Since the cardinals are scattered around the world, a short time period to the election tilts the deck in favor of those who are based in Rome, in the curia, the massive medieval bureaucracy of the church, who are “operating on their home turf. They are the ones who know all of the other cardinals because they all visit Rome.”

Already, one of the papabile (Italian for people considered potential successors) Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, has a showcase for speaking to his brethren. He will give the homily and set the itinerary for prayers during the week long retreat for the pope and the curia, and the Vatican affiliated paper, L’Osservatore Romano, will publish his comments o those medications.

The paper also says, Ravasi “is expected to speak about Joseph Ratzinger’s possible future role” as in the life of prayer that Benedict has said he will lead iafter he steps down from the throne of St. Peter.

When Pope John Paul II died in 2005, it was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then dean of the College of Cardinals and head of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who delivered key addresses during the funeral and the days leading to the conclave. When it was over, he was Pope Benedict XVI, Vicar of Christ and Bishop of Rome.

After 8 p.m. on February 28th, he will mostly likely be known as Joseph Ratzinger, bishop emeritus of Rome.