With the end of the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, the time of the Sede Vacante starts next Thursday, February 28, at 8:00 pm. This is how the period is called, in which the office of the Pope is not occupied.
Typically, this period extends from the death of the head of church until his successor is elected. The term comes from Latin and literally means “empty chair”. During the papal transition, the College of Cardinals, eventually all 209 currently living Cardinals, are in charge of the church. Their powers are limited to tasks and decisions that can not be postponed. Laws issued by the Pope cannot be corrected or modified during this period.
Administrated by Cardinal Chamberlain
The interim government of the Church is taken over by the Cardinal Chamberlain (Camerlengo). The current Camerlengo is Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. Together with three Cardinal assistants, that are chosen by lot and replaced every three days, he forms a so-called special congregation, wich decides, among other things, when the entire College of Cardinals shall meet for the first General Congregation, to prepare the Pope election.
The General Congregation meets daily at the Apostolic Palace, and is headed by the Dean of Cardinals Angelo Sodano. The College of Cardinals prepares in particular the election of the new Pope. The Pope election traditionally takes place in the Sistine Chapel under strictest security and confidentiality measures. However, during their stay in Rome, the Cardinals live – also during the time of the conclave – reasonably comfortable in the Vatican Guest House Santa Marta.
All Cardinals participating in the General Congregation, must swear an oath on the Gospel, to respect the rules and to absolute secrecy. The same applies to participants who are older than 80 years and may therefore not participate in the election of the new Pope. The cardinals swear, among other things, that they “will keep everything secret, which relates in any way to the election of the Pope.
The Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church (“Chamberlain”) is the administrator of the property and the revenues of the Holy See, and is always a Cardinal.
Tarcisio Pietro Evasio Bertone, S.D.B. (born 2 December 1934) currently serves as Cardinal Secretary of State and Camerlengo.
Until a successor Pope can be elected, the Camerlengo serves as acting head of State of the Vatican City. He is not, however, currently responsible for the government of the Catholic Church during a sede vacante. Universi Dominici Gregis placed that task in the hands of the College of Cardinals.
The Camerlengo, though, does keep his office during the sede vacante, as opposed to the rest of the Roman Curia, and functions as the executive director of Vatican operations answerable to the College of Cardinals during an interregnum, primarily to carry out the College’s decisions with regard to arranging the funeral of the late pope and the events leading up to the conclave. The only other person who keeps his office is the Major Penitentiary.
Up until recent times, upon the death of a Pope, it was the duty of the Cardinal Chamberlain to perform a ceremony officially identifying the body of the deceased. Accompanied by the officials of the Apostolic Camera, the Camerlengo approaches the death-bed of the pope. The face of the pope, which had been covered with a white cloth, is revealed. The Camerlengo and all those present kneel in meditation. They rise and the Camerlengo performs the ritual of absolution. The Dean of the College of Notaries reads a document called the ‘Rogito’, the papal equivalent of a death certificate and record of the proccedings of that day. The Fisherman’s Ring is handed over to the Camerlengo by the Papal Maestro di Camera, who is its usual custodian. The ring is shown to the Cardinals present at the First Consistory after the death of the pope, and is defaced in their presence, along with the official papal seal.