The Holy See Search



Tuesday 5 April 2005


The volume Sede Apostolica Vacante published by the Libreria Editrice Vaticana was produced by the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff following the publication of the Ordo Exsequiarum Romani Pontificis and the Ordo Rituum Conclavis1. The book refers therefore first of all to the above-mentioned Ordo. However the material considered examines everything connected with the Vacant See as established by the Apostolic Constitution «Universi Dominici Gregis on the vacancy of the Apostolic See and the election of the Roman Pontiff» (22 February 1996).

The volume is intended not only as an authoritative presentation of the Rites established for the Funeral of the Roman Pontiff and for the Conclave but also as a general introduction to the other events which characterise the period of Vacant See.

The period of the Vacant See

The title Vacant Apostolic See refers not only to a period of time but also to a series of events, rites and acts which take place during that period. The expression Apostolic See also clearly indicates that the period and acts in question concern the Vacant See of the Bishop of Rome, namely the successor of Saint Peter the Apostle.

The Apostolic See becomes vacant with the death of the Pope and ceases to be vacant with the election of the new Pope. The Pope’s death is closely connected with the Funeral Rites, whereas the election of the new Pope is connected with the Rites of the Conclave and in the interval between the Funeral and the Conclave it is a tradition for the Cardinals to hold General and Particular Congregations 2 .  The period of the Vacant See is therefore marked by a succession of events: the death of the Roman Pontiff, the Congregations of the Cardinals and the Conclave with the Election of the Roman Pontiff.

During the period of Vacant See, besides the College of Cardinals, certain other persons assume special prominence: the Cardinal Camerlengo of Holy Roman Church, the dean of the College of Cardinals, the Secretary of the College of Cardinals and the Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations. Their roles and the acts carried out in this period are regulated by tradition, as codified by provisions issued by the Roman Pontiff.

Various Roman Pontiffs have issued Norms to be observed during the Vacant See. The custom was repeated frequently especially during the last century: as a means of meeting the particular needs of the times, norms regarding the Vacant See were issued by St Pius X, Pius XI, Pius XII and Blessed John XXIII.

Pope Paul VI, of venerable memory, with the Apostolic Constitution Romano Pontifici eligendo established the norms observed during the last two Vacant Sees: the first following the death of Paul VI himself, from 6 to 26 August 1978; the second following the death of John Paul I, from 28 September to 16 October of the same year.

General norms on the Vacant See

The special attention given to succession in the Apostolic See of Rome is due to the See’s singularity and importance. The Roman Pontiff, the successor of St Peter the Apostle, is in fact Bishop of the Diocese of Rome and Shepherd of the whole flock of the Lord.

John Paul II, following the example of his predecessors and taking into account the changed situation of the Church and the general revision of Canon Law undertaken after the Second Vatican Council, with his Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, issued on 22 February 1996, established new regulations with regard to the vacancy of the Apostolic See and the election of the Roman Pontiff.

These norms can be summarised briefly as follows.

The Body charged with the election of the Roman Pontiff is the College of Cardinals of Holy Roman Church. «In them one finds expressed in a remarkable synthesis the two aspects which characterise the figure and office of the Roman Pontiff: Roman, because identified with the Bishop of the Church in Rome and thus closely linked to the clergy of this City, represented by the Cardinals of the presbyteral and diaconal titles of Rome, and to the Cardinal Bishops of the suburbicarian Sees; Pontiff of the universal Church, because called to represent visibly the unseen Shepherd who leads his whole flock to the pastures of eternal life. The universality of the Church is clearly expressed in the very composition of the College of Cardinals, whose members come from every continent».3

The norm, established by Pope Paul VI, that Cardinals who celebrate their eightieth birthday before the day on which the Apostolic See becomes vacant do not take part in the election, is maintained.

The Conclave is held within Vatican City State in determined places: Domus Sanctæ Marthæ where the Cardinal electors reside; chapels for liturgical celebrations; the Sistine Chapel, where the election takes place. The Cardinal electors and those called to co-operate in the orderly function of the election itself are to reside in Vatican City State during the period of the election. The Domus Sanctæ Marthæ, the Sistine Chapel and places for liturgical celebrations are closed to unauthorised persons. In particular, provision is made to ensure that no one approaches the Cardinal electors while they are being transported from the Domus Sanctae Marthae to the Apostolic Vatican Palace. (cf. nn. 41, 43).

The only form with which the electors may manifest their vote in the election of the Roman Pontiff is by secret ballot (cf. n. 62). The norm of strict secrecy regarding anything concerning the voting directly or indirectly during the election is confirmed (cf. n. 47).

With regard to the general norms on the Vacant See established by Universi Dominici Gregis, we cannot fail to make one observation. The traditional form of Conclave followed for many centuries until the Conclave in which Pope John Paul II was elected in 1978, has been altered. The Cardinal electors and those called to co-operate with the function of the Conclave will no longer be locked (cum-clave, hence Conclave), in one place where they lodge, proceed with the election and remain until the election is over. With the new norms the Cardinal electors occupy different places according to their activity: lodging in the Domus Sanctæ Marthæ, liturgical celebrations in the Chapel of Santa Marta and other chapels, the election in the Sistine Chapel; moreover, to move from place to place they use a space not directly connected with the acts of the Conclave. In fact the physical inviolability proper to the traditional Conclave has been lifted.

The Rite of the Funeral and the Rites of the Conclave

Universi Dominici Gregis states in chapter 5 that for the Pope’s Funeral and the Conclave the two rites Ordo Exsequiarum Romani Pontificis and Ordo Rituum Conclavis are to be carefully followed (cf. n. 27).

The Constitution also establishes certain norms with regard to the duties of the Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations during the Vacant See and the services to be rendered by the Masters of Ceremonies in the places destined for the Cardinal electors during liturgical celebrations and the election of the new Pope (cf. n. 46).

Following those directions, the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, with a personal mandate from the same Supreme Pontiff undertook, with the collaboration of its Consultors, the revision of the volume De funere Summi Pontificis used in 1978 for the Funerals of the Supreme Pontiffs Paul VI and John Paul I, and drafted the new volume Ordo Exsequiarum Romani Pontificis. At the same time the Office revised the Ordo Sacrorum Rituum Conclavis from 1978, and drafted the new Ordo Rituum Conclavis. These two volumes, whose titles were established by Universi Dominici Gregis, were approved by Pope John Paul II on 5 February 1998 and printed by the Vatican Press in 2000. In both books the euchological texts, the biblical texts and the rubrics are given in Latin and Italian. For some Latin texts musical indications for Gregorian chant have been included.

Each volume includes Prænotanda or General Introduction which explains the development and significance of the Rites from both a liturgical and a pastoral aspect. The Office also took care to ensure that the words, prayers and gestures used in the ritual sequences foster understanding of the nature and purpose of the rites and active participation.

Particular attention was given when drafting the text of the rubrics in order to ensure that they express clearly the indications of the Apostolic Constitution, help to prevent as far as possible eventual doubts and disputes about competence, and foster a harmonious celebration of the ritual.

From the elaborate and complicated norms and rites marked by exteriority and repetition which accompanied the period of the Vacant See in the past, we have moved on to rites characterised by noble simplicity and beauty, better suited to the mentality and needs of our day in accordance with the principles and the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.

The spiritual and ecclesial significance and the pastoral finalities of liturgical celebrations brought to the fore by Vatican II served as the basis for the work of drafting the two new Ordines. Particularly significant in this regard are the texts at the beginning of the Introductions:

«In her Funeral Rite the Church makes visible her faith in the Risen Lord’s victory over sin and over death. This faith is expressed in a special way during the Funeral of the Roman Pontiff, who, by reason of his ministry in the Church, confirmed in the faith all her pastors and the people».

«As she celebrates the election of the Successor of Saint Peter, the Church is particularly united with the Bishops and above all with the Cardinal electors and implores God to grant a new Supreme Pontiff as a gift of his goodness and providence».5

The  volume «Sede Apostolica Vacante»

The volume Sede Apostolica Vacante, as we said above, deals not only with the Rite of the Funeral of the Roman Pontiff and the Conclave from the ritual-celebratory aspect; it also broadens the question to include the Vacant See as a whole, considering everything from an  historical aspect and in the light of current legislation.

The volume has three parts: The death and funeral of the Roman Pontiff; the Vacant See; the Conclave and the election of the Roman Pontiff. Each part considers its respective subject from three aspects: its history, the current legislation, its ritual aspect. Each part concludes with an illustration of: «places, furniture, robes and furnishings». Only the second part, since it deals with the College of Cardinals and the General Congregations, is not considered from the ritual-celebratory aspect.

The volume is completed with an interesting Appendix consisting of the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis in Italian, an analytical Index and a terminological Lexicon for readers with little experience of ecclesiastical thought and terminology.

Although the volume, in its treatment of the events, has covered their historical background, it remains bound to the present situation as constituted by the legislation of Universi Dominici Gregis and the Rituals prepared for the Funeral of the Pope and the Rites of the Conclave.

With this publication, then, the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff wishes to foster among the Catholic faithful, priests and Bishops a better understanding of the significance and the importance of the events and the rites which take place during the Vacant See. These rites and events concern in fact «the Roman Pontiff, successor of Saint Peter in the See of the city of Rome, visible head of the whole Church and Servant of the Servants of God and are therefore of utmost importance in the life of the People of God on its pilgrimage on earth».6

Lastly, the volume may be of use for the social communications media and the service they are called to offer the Church and the world, especially on the occasion of important events of faith.

A powerful moment for the faith of the Church

The Rites for the Funeral of the Roman Pontiff and for the Conclave were revised primarily in order to foster the sanctification of the faithful and the building up of the Church, the Body of Christ. But in actual fact the whole period of the Vacant See is a powerful time for the life of the Church, called as she is to renew her hope in eternal life, strengthen her unity, persevere with one accord in prayer and bear witness to her faith in the Lord’s continual presence.

During this period there are however certain times when the Church is called more especially to manifest her faith. First, at the death of the Roman Pontiff. In this situation the Church is called to entrust herself «with total trust to Christ, the Supreme Shepherd who promised to be with her and assist her always».7 The Church’s faith is expressed in the prayer which is said as a veil of white silk is placed over the face of the deceased Pontiff:

«Almighty and eternal God,
Lord of life and of death,
we trust and we believe
that the life of the Holy Father N.
is now hidden in you.

May his face,
on which the light of this world no longer shines,
be illuminated for ever by the true light
which has you as its eternal source.

May his face,
which sought your paths
in order to show them to the Church,
now see your face, O Father.

May his face,
now hidden from our eyes,
contemplate your beauty
and commend the flock to you, its eternal Shepherd,
who live and reign, world without end».8

A second powerful moment of faith is demanded of the Church during the period of the election of the Successor of Peter. At this time the Church must be deeply united with the Bishops and above all with the Cardinal electors in imploring «from God the new Supreme Pontiff as a gift of his goodness and providence. Indeed, like the first community of Christians described in the Acts of the Apostles (cf. 1:4), the whole Church must persevere in prayer with one accord in spiritual union with Mary, mother of Jesus, to obtain from the Lord a worthy Shepherd».9

The third highly significant moment for the Church is the solemn announcement of the election of the Roman Pontiff and the Pope’s first blessing urbi et orbi. The spontaneous cheering of the people in St Peter’s Square in response to the announcement of the election, Habemus Papam10 and their acclamation of the new Pontiff as he appears on the central balcony of the Vatican Basilica, represent in the tradition of papal elections one of the most powerful and significant expressions of faith. In this way the faithful from the Diocese of Rome and from throughout the whole world acknowledge and embrace the new Pontiff, the Successor of Peter in the See of Rome, the visible head of the whole Church, and the Servant of the Servants of God.

Vatican City, 19 March 2005 


Piero Marini
Titular Archbishop of Martirano
Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations

1 Tipografia Vaticana, 2000.

2 Cf. Universi Dominici Gregis, nn.7-13.

3 Universi Dominici Gregis, p.6.

4 Ordo Exsequiarum Romani Ponteficis, Introduction n.1.

5 Ordo Rituum Conclavis Introduction n.2.

6 Ordo Rituum Conclavis Introduction n.1.

7 Ordo Exsequiarum Romani Pontificis, Introduction n.3.

8 Ordo Exsequiarum Romani Pontificis, n.98.

9 Ordo Rituum Conclavis Introduction 2. Significant in this regard the numerous prayers of intercession included in the Ordo before the Cardinals place their votes: 96-102.

10 "The first of the Cardinal Deacons goes to the outside balcony of the Hall of Benediction of the Vatican Basilica and announces the election of the Pope to the people in a loud voice with these words: I announce to you a great joy: the Pope has been elected! He is Cardinal of Holy Roman Church N.....who has chosen the name N...": Ordo Rituum Conclavis, n.74.