Why I am living “Angels and Demons”: The Basics of “sede vacante”

As of last Thursday at 8:00p.m., the See of St. Peter and the seat of the Bishop of Rome became vacant.  Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, as he will now be called, flew by helico170px-Ombrellino-keys_svgpter to the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo just south of Rome.  This small town has plenty of experience accommodating popes, but this is the first time that the town has had to accommodate a former pope.  This is where he will stay until the monastery where he will live out the rest of his life within Vatican City is completed.  Benedict spoke for only a few minutes to the faithful who gathered outside of his new temporary residence and thanked all of those who have supported him in his Petrine Ministry during his nearly eight year reign as Pontiff.  Because he is now officially no longer pope, Benedict is no longer eligible for the protection of the Swiss Guard (the security force of Vatican City) nor is he considered to be infallible (having the power to dictate the word of God and exact teachings of the Catholic Church) any more.  He is now simply a pilgrim, like the many thousands who will be flocking to Rome over the next week to wait for the election of his successor.  In other words, he now has absolutely no authority at all over the Roman Catholic Church.

Now that Benedict’s resignation has taken effect, we are living in the period between popes, known in Latin as “sede vacante” or “vacant seat.”  The “vacant seat” specifically refers to the seat of St. John of Latheran Archbasilica in Rome, which is the Pope’s cathedral because he is the Bishop of Rome and upon the election of the new pope he will take possession of his cathedral in the San Giovanni neighborhood of Rome.  Usually, this in between period from the death, or in this case resignation, of one pope and the election of a new pope lasts only a few weeks, but there have been times in the Church’s history when sede vacante has lasted months or even several years.

Many symbolic changes occur during sede vacante as the Vatican prepares for the next Successor of St. Peter.  The Vatican is now being administered by a caretaker government, i.e. the College of Cardinals, the 115 or so men from around the world who will take part in the ultra-secretive papal conclave in the Sistine Chapel to elect Benedict’s successor.  No real church reforms or business will be proposed or voted on during sede vacante, but in the event of an emergency there are procedures in place that give authority to a few individuals to make decisions for the Church.  Here is a short outline of exactly what has happened and what is happening right now at the Vatican:

1) All of the heads of the Roman Curia, the administrative/governmental body who govern the Church along with the pope, resign their offices.  The exceptions to this are the Cardinal Camerlengo (latin for “chamberlain”).  The current Camerlengo is Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone who has been serving since 2006.  He will serve as the administrator of the Holy See and the acting head of state of the Vatican City State.  The Major Penitentiary, who is currently Cardinal Manuel Monteiro de Castro, also retains his position during sede vacante.


This is Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the current Camerlengo of the Catholic ChurchCardinal Tarcisio Bertone

2) The coat of arms of the Holy See also changes during this period.  The image at the top of this post is the sede vacante coat of arms, or the coat of arms of the Camerlengo.  It signifies that the temporal power of the church rests with the Camerlengo and not with the pope.

3) The Vatican Post Office issues special sede vacante stamps that are only made and issued during this period, I’m lucky enough to be picking some up tomorrow!

4) Cardinals have begun to gather at the Vatican today for meetings when they will determine when the conclave will begin.  Church law states that cardinals must wait 15-20 days from the time the vacancy begins to begin the conclave.  But because this waiting period has traditionally been reserved for mourning the death of a pope and the funeral arrangements, many are questions whether waiting the full 15 days is necessary this time around.  So it is POSSIBLE that the conclave will begin before March 15 but there is no way to know until the College of Cardinals announces the exact date.  We could know that date today or later on this week.  Vatican officials want the new pope to be in place for the start of Holy Week, which begins on March 24, so if there is a way to move up the start date, they probably will.

These are the basics of what is going on at the Vatican right now.  There has been a lot of talk as to who possible candidates are to be the next pope.  At this point that is all speculation; there is no way to know who the new pope will be until he greets the crowd in St. Peter’s Square after his election.  But at this point there is basically a cardinal from every continent who has been named a possible candidate.  For centuries the papacy has belonged to Europeans, and many Catholics feel it is time for a pope from the developing world.  It’s important to note that the Church moves extremely slow on everything, so if a non-European ends up becoming pope, this would signify a progressive step forward for the Church.

I found this really interesting article written by a former cardinal who participated in the 2005 conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI and he gives a first-hand account of what its like to participate in a papal conclave.  So little is known about this secretive gathering so something like this is worth a read, he does a good job at describing the mood and exact process in the Sistine Chapel.

And if you want even more, I recommend watching “Angels and Demons,” starring Tom Hanks.  The plot of the movie is obviously  very different from what is currently happening in Rome.  But it is similar in the respect that the Church is at a major turning point and surrounded by controversy.  It still is a good intro. to the process of a papal conclave for anyone who doesn’t know what it’s all about and it also points out some of Rome’s most famous sites!

Upcoming posts this week:


-results of Italian elections from last week


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