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Sede vacante in the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church is the vacancy of the episcopal see of a particular church. It is Latin for "the seat being vacant" (the ablative absolute to sedes vacans "vacant seat"), refering to the cathedra of the particular church. This means that for a diocese the diocesan bishop has either died, resigned, transfered to a different diocese, or lost his office. If there is a coadjutor bishop for the church, then this period does not take place as a coadjutor bishop immediately succeeds to the episcopal see.
During a sede vacante, the vicars general lose their office (unless they have the episcopal character). The governance of the particular church is entrusted to the chief advisors of the diocesan bishop known as the college of consultors, who must then elect an administrator sede vacante. This administrator possesses ordinary power over the particular church until a newly appointed/elected diocesan bishop takes possession of the diocese. Until the election of the administrator takes place, the senior auxiliary bishop, if there is one, acts as administrator.
The choice of the college of consultors is limited to bishops and priests older than 35 years. If the college fails to elect an administrator within eight days, the metropolitan archbishop (for a suffragan see) or senior suffragan bishop (for a metropolitan see) may appoint an administrator for the particular church. The Pope, having full jurisdiction over the Roman Catholic Church, may choose to appoint the administrator himself at any time, who is then known as the apostolic administrator sede vacante of the particular church.
Vacancy of the Holy See
More particularly, sede vacante refers to the vacancy of the Holy See, which occurs after the death or resignation of a pope. In this case the particular church is the diocese of Rome and the "vacant seat" is the cathedra of Saint Peter. During this period, the Holy See is administered by a regency of the College of Cardinals.
According to Universi Dominici Gregis, during the sede vacante the government of the Holy See (and therefore of the Roman Catholic Church) falls to the College of Cardinals, but in a very limited capacity. At the same time, all of the heads of the Roman Curia resign their offices. The exceptions are the Cardinal Camerlengo, who is charged with managing the property of the Holy See, and the Major Penitentiary, who continues to exercise his normal role. If either has to do something which normally requires the assent of the Pope, he has to submit it to the College of Cardinals. Papal legates continue to exercise their diplomatic roles overseas, and the Vicar General for Rome continues to exercise his pastoral role over the diocese of Rome during this period. The postal administration of the State of Vatican City prepares and issues special postage stamps for use during this particular period, known as sede vacante stamps. They are only valid during the sede vacante.
The coat of arms of the Holy See also changes during this period. Instead of the papal tiara over the keys, the tiara is replaced with the umbracullum or ombrellino in Italian. This symbolizes both the lack of a Pope and also the governance of the Camerlengo over the temporalities of the Holy See. As further indication, the Camerlengo ornaments his arms with this symbol during this period, which he subsequently removes once a pope is elected.
Sede vacante is usually highlighted by the funeral mass of the deceased pope, the general congregations of the college of cardinals for determining the particulars of the election, and finally culminated in the conclave to elect a successor. Once a new pope has been elected, the sede is no longer vacant, so this period then officially ends. Afterwards occurs the Papal Installation or Papal Coronation, depending on the form of inauguration and investiture a new pope chooses, and the formal possession of the cathedra of the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterno.
Cardinals present in Rome are required to wait at least fifteen days after the start of the sede vacante for the rest of the college before they can hold the conclave to elect the new Pope. However, after twenty days have elapsed, they must hold the conclave even if cardinals are missing. Historically, sede vacante periods have often been quite lengthy, lasting many months due to lengthy deadlocked conclaves. For many years through 1922 the period from the death of the Pope to the start of the conclave was shorter, but after William Henry Cardinal O'Connell had arrived just too late for two conclaves in a row, Pope Pius XI extended the time limit. Ironically, with the very next conclave in 1939, cardinals began to travel by air.
The most recent period of the sede vacante of the Holy See began at 19:37 UTC, April 2, 2005, due to the death of Pope John Paul II, and concluded with the election of Pope Benedict XVI at 16:05 UTC, April 19, 2005.
List of sede vacante periods since the 19th century
- between Pius VI and Pius VII - August 29, 1799 to March 14, 1800, 197 days
- between Pius VII and Leo XII - August 20 to September 28, 1823, 39 days
- between Leo XII and Pius VIII - February 10 to March 31, 1829, 49 days
- between Pius VIII and Gregory XVI - December 1, 1830 to February 2, 1831, 63 days
- between Gregory XVI and Pius IX - June 1 to June 16, 1846, 15 days
- between Pius IX and Leo XIII - February 7 to February 20, 1878, 13 days
- between Leo XIII and Pius X - July 20 to August 4, 1903, 15 days
- between Pius X and Benedict XV - August 20 to September 3, 1914, 14 days
- between Benedict XV and Pius XI - January 22 to February 6, 1922, 15 days
- between Pius XI and Pius XII - February 10 to March 2, 1939, 20 days
- between Pius XII and John XXIII - October 9 to October 28, 1958, 19 days
- between John XXIII and Paul VI - June 3 to June 21, 1963, 17 days
- between Paul VI and John Paul I - August 6 to August 26, 1978, 20 days
- between John Paul I and John Paul II - September 28 to October 16, 1978, 19 days
- between John Paul II and Benedict XVI - April 2 to April 19, 2005, 17 days
- Sedevacantism, the belief among some Traditional Catholics that the sitting Popes in recent decades have not been true Popes due to heresy.
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