Sede Vacante 2013: Between Tradition and Novelty

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The vacancy of the Sancta Sedes Apostolica, the Holy Apostolic See of Rome, is known as the sede vacante, the Latin ablative absolute of sedes vacans, meaning “when the see is vacant.” The Roman See (diocese) is called Apostolic because, Divine Providence deigned it to be the diocese of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul. It is called holy because many of its bishops were saints and martyrs.  In the last century alone, one has been proclaimed a Saint and two have been declared Blessed, and more beatifications are due to follow. The Roman See also possesses a unique primacy, a precedence recognized by all the ancient Churches. Already at the Council of Ephesus, in 431, the Roman Bishop and his Diocese were referred to as the Apostolic See.

Today the term Holy Apostolic See signifies the Pope and the Roman Curia, the bureaucracy that assists him in his office.  In the twentieth century the Curia developed an artificial and practical distinction between the use of “Apostolic” and “Holy See.” “Apostolic See” has been used to refer to Church matters, whereas “Holy See” has been used to refer to the papacy’s diplomatic relations.  This distinction, however, is not air-tight and, even today, we sometimes find both terms used in a single document.

Flag_of_Vatican_CityAccording to Church law, the Apostolic See becomes lawfully vacant in two ways: when the Bishop of Rome dies, or when he abdicates. The abdication of the Roman Bishop, however, is not a resignation because the pontiff does not submit it to a higher authority. This is due to the nature of the papacy. As the sucessor of the Apostle Peter, the Roman Pontiff is entrusted with a dual ministry. Firstly, he serves as bishop of the Roman See and primate of the Latin Church. Secondly, he serves the Head of the Universal Church, the Vicar of Christ on earth. Catholics believe that this dual headship, known as the “Petrine Ministry,” is of Divine origin, willed by Christ Himself. No patriarch or primate possesses such a calling and each of them submits their resignations to the Pope.  In canon law (both Western and Eastern Codes), the Roman Pontiff figures as an internal superior at every level of Church government. And, thus, his death or abdication leaves the Universal Church bereft of a Father and Supreme Pastor.

In the past century, the Apostolic See was vacant eight times, following the deaths of Leo XIII (July 20, 1903), St. Pius X (August 20, 1914), Benedict XV (January 22, 1922),  Pius XI (February 10, 1939), Pius XII (October 9, 1958) Blessed John XXIII (June 3, 1963), Paul VI (August 6, 1978), John Paul I (September 28, 1978).  Since the dawn of the current century it has experienced one Sede vacante, with the death of Blessed John Paul II on 2 April 2005.  Each of these vacant sees involved the dramatic funerary rites and burial of the dead Pope, ceremonies drastically simplified following the Second Vatican Council.

The Sede vacante of 2013 is unique in that it did not ensure from the death of a Pope but rather from his abdication. Instead of the somber dramaturgy of a papal funeral, the vacancy of the Apostolic See was preceded by the spectacle of a simple departure. Some media comentators incorrectly stated that the Pope was departing with “the usual pomp and circumstance.” Instead, the abdication of Benedict XVI was breathtaking for its simplicity. Despite the fact that pastoral considerations required a minimum of ceremony, the outgoing pontiff directed the attention that surrounded his person toward Christ, in both words and deeds. The central act of the drama, the abdication, was completely hidden, just as the central point of the Byzantine Liturgy, the consecratory prayers, occur behind closed doors, hidden from human eyes. The former pontiff likely confirmed his abdication in writing, but this would have been witnessed by an intimate few, in total reserve. Meanwhile, the public only saw the gates of the apostolic palace of Castelgandolfo close and the Swiss Guards leave their post.

And so began the most unnatural period for the Catholic Church, which finds itself bereft of its earthly leader. Immediately the cardinal Camerlengo assumed charge of the Apostolic See. Accompanied  by the Camera Apostolica, a group of prelates which remains virtually inactive except during the sede vacante, he took formal possession of the Apostolic Palaces of the Vatican and the Lateran, and sealed the papal apartments. The following day the Dean of the College of Cardinals sent a letter summoning the cardinals to Rome and convoked their first General Congregation (meeting) for the following Monday, March 4.  This was to be the second time that cardinals over 80 were permitted to participate at these meetings, since their exclusion from the conclave in 1970.

One of the first acts of the Sacred College was to send a telegram of thanks to the former Pope, addressing him for the first time with his new title, “His Holiness Benedict XVI, pope-emeritus.” This caused some debate because, following his abdication, Joseph Ratzinger was no longer Pope. Even the prestigious but controversial publication, La Civiltà Cattolica, questioned the title’s correctness.  Benedict also received a telegram from the Patriarch of Moscow, thanking him for his support of traditional Christian truths and values.

From March 4 to 11 the College of Cardinals, both electors and those over-80 who chose to attend, discussed issues relevant to the upcoming conclave. They focused on how the Church should present the Faith according to the needs of today’s world.  In addition to the statements of the cardinals and the Holy See’s Press Office, various prophets and pundits engaged in endless background chatter.  Rome was abuzz with media coverage as reporters chose rendezvous near the Vatican, sometimes amid the eateries on Borgo Pio, a popular haunt for journalist and prelate alike.

Besides the papal abdication, the 2013 Sede vacante has been marked by several novelties. Among these are two demonstrations by protest groups. The first took place in the heart of Rome in front of the ecclesiastical tailor shop Ditta Annibale Gamarelli. It was led by Italian animal rights activists protesting the fact that the mozetta, a small red cape prepared for the new pontiff, had been trimmed with ermine. Traditionally the popes wore the fur-trimmed winter mozetta from November 1 to Holy Saturday.  While John Paul II wore only the summer silk version, Pope Benedict restored the winter cape from December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Despite assurances that it had been made with artificial fur, the protesters were determined to make their point. The second protest was organized by the notorious Femen from Ukraine, who lamented the absence of women in the conclave. A touch of irony may be seen in the fact that the unbelieving Femen were not the only Ukrainian women to make their point. Among the five tailors who sewed the papal robes are two devout Ukrainian Greek-Catholics.

Another novelty of this Sede Romana vacante has been the fact that, behind much worldly agitation, groups of faithful have been gathering to pray in Piazza San Pietro. One group, which included several Americans, prays the Rosary each evening at 7. The first evening the conclave saw unusually large attendance to witness the first puffs of black smoke. Despite the inclement weather, the crowds filled the entire piazza.

The period of papal vacancy entered its final phase on March 12 with the beginning of the conclave. The day began with a votive Mass to the Holy Spirit for the election of the Roman Pontiff (Missa pro eligendo Romano Pontifice) presided over by the Cardinal Dean, Angelo Sodano, and concelebrated or attended in choro by all the cardinals. This event was the last part of the pre-election that over-80 cardinals were permitted to attend.  In the afternoon, only the cardinal electors processed into the Sistine Chapel. They were led by their Vice-Dean, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, because Cardinal Sodano is over-80 an not eligible to participate. After each taking an oath of fidelity and secrecy, the formula “Extra omnes” was read by the Master of Papal Ceremonies, Monsignor Guido Marini. Marini has hitherto appeared only in choir cassock and rochet, the dress of a papal ceremoniary on duty, even if he is a bishop.  On this day, however, Marini appeared for the first time with the distinctive manteletta over his rochet, the choir dress of the head of papal ceremonies, one of only a few superior prelates of the Curia.

Although the present Sede vacante has witnessed many novelties, fundamentally it has marked by traditional actions and gestures. It will duly conclude, in a few days, with the traditional election of a new bishop of Rome who will be the 266th successor of St. Peter and the immediate successor of Benedict XVI.

Rev. Dr. Athanasius McVay

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Rev. Dr. Athanasius McVay is a priest of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Edmonton, Canada, professional archival researcher and church historian specializing in twentieth-century Vatican diplomacy and the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church.

  • Lt. William J. Lawler II, M.Ed

    Thank you for the informative and clear description of these important rules and traditions. Semantics are indeed important.

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