(Archbishop Piero Marini closes the doors to the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel as cardinals begin the last conclave on April 18, 2005, which elected Pope Benedict. REUTERS/Osservatore Romano)

The conclave to choose Pope Benedict’s successor could start earlier than expected, giving the Roman Catholic Church a new leader by mid March, the Vatican said on Saturday.

Less than two weeks away from a historic papal resignation, the Vatican also stressed again that the pope was not abandoning the Church in times of difficulties and urged the faithful to trust in God and in the next pope.

Five days after Benedict announced his resignation in Latin to a small group of cardinals, the Vatican was still in a state of spiritual and bureaucratic shock, groping for ways to deal with a situation without precedent for at least six centuries.

Some 117 cardinals under the age of 80 will be eligible to enter the secretive conclave to elect Benedict’s successor. Church rules say the conclave has to start between 15-20 days after the papacy becomes vacant, which it will on February 28.