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Sede vacante

This article is part of the series:
Legislation and Legal System of the Catholic Church

Sede vacante is an expression, used in the canon law of the Catholic Church, that refers to the vacancy of the episcopal see of a particular church. It is Latin for "the seat being vacant" (the ablative absolute of sedes vacans "vacant seat", or the Italian for the same term), the seat in question being the cathedra of the particular church.


  • Vacancy of the Holy See 1
    • List of extended sede vacante periods in the Holy See from earliest times 1.1
    • List of sede vacante periods in the Holy See since the 19th century 1.2
  • Other Roman Catholic dioceses 2
  • Other uses 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6

Vacancy of the Holy See

After the death or resignation of a pope, the Holy See enters a period of sede vacante. In this case the particular church is the Diocese of Rome and the "vacant seat" is the cathedra of Saint John Lateran, the cathedral church of the bishop of Rome. During this period, the Holy See is administered by a regency of the College of Cardinals.

According to Universi Dominici gregis, the government of the Holy See, sede vacante, (and therefore of the Catholic Church) falls to the College of Cardinals, but in a very limited capacity. At the same time, all the heads of the Roman Curia "cease to exercise" 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 both the Vicar General of Rome and the Vicar General for the Vatican City State continue to exercise their pastoral role during this period. The postal administration of the Vatican City State prepares and issues special postage stamps for use during this particular period, known as "sede vacante stamps".

The arms of the Holy See under 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 umbraculum 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. Previously during this period the arms of the Camerlengo appeared on commemorative Vatican lira coinage. It now makes its appearance on Vatican euro coins, which are legal tender in all Eurozone states.

The interregnum 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 culminates in the papal conclave to elect a successor. Once a new pope has been elected (and ordained bishop if necessary) the sedes is no longer vacant, so this period then officially ends. Afterward occurs the Papal inauguration (formerly in the form of a papal coronation), and the formal taking possession of the cathedra of the Saint John Lateran.

Cardinals present in Rome are required to wait at least fifteen days after the start of the vacancy for the rest of the college before they can hold the conclave to elect the new Pope. After twenty days have elapsed, they must hold the conclave, even if some cardinals are missing. The period from the death of the Pope to the start of the conclave was often shorter but, after Cardinal William Henry O'Connell had arrived just too late for two conclaves in a row, Pius XI extended the time limit. With the next conclave in 1939, cardinals began to travel by air. Days before his resignation in February 2013, Benedict XVI amended the rules to allow the cardinals to commence conclave sooner, if all voting cardinals are present.[1] Historically, sede vacante periods have often been quite lengthy, lasting many months, or even years, due to lengthy deadlocked conclaves.

The most recent period of sede vacante of the Holy See began on 28 February 2013, after the resignation of Benedict XVI at 19:00 UTC on 28 February 2013[2] and ended on 13 March 2013 with the election of Pope Francis, a period of 13 days.

The longest period without a Pope in the last 250 years was the approximately half year from the death in prison of Pius VI in 1799 and the election of Pius VII in Venice in 1800.

List of extended sede vacante periods in the Holy See from earliest times

Whilst conclaves and papal elections are generally completed in good time, there have been several periods when the papal chair has been vacant for months or even years. Such an extensive period of time without a Pope is described as an interregnum.

The following is a table of sede vacante periods in excess of a year:-

Preceding Pope Following Pope Beginning Ending Duration
Clement IV Gregory X 29 November 1268 1 September 1271 2 years 10 months
Nicholas IV Celestine V 4 April 1292 5 July 1294 2 years 3 months
Clement V John XXII 20 April 1314 2 August 1316 2 years 3 months
Gregory XII Martin V 4 July 1415 11 November 1417 2 years 5 months

List of sede vacante periods in the Holy See since the 19th century

Preceding Pope Following Pope Beginning Ending Duration[3]
Pius VI Pius VII 29 August 1799 14 March 1800 207 days
Pius VII Leo XII 20 August 1823 28 September 1823 39 days
Leo XII Pius VIII 10 February 1829 31 March 1829 49 days
Pius VIII Gregory XVI 30 November 1830 2 February 1831 63 days
Gregory XVI Pius IX 1 June 1846 16 June 1846 15 days
Pius IX Leo XIII 7 February 1878 20 February 1878 13 days
Leo XIII Pius X 20 July 1903 4 August 1903 15 days
Pius X Benedict XV 20 August 1914 3 September 1914 14 days
Benedict XV Pius XI 22 January 1922 6 February 1922 15 days
Pius XI Pius XII 10 February 1939 2 March 1939 20 days
Pius XII John XXIII 9 October 1958 28 October 1958 19 days
John XXIII Paul VI 3 June 1963 21 June 1963 18 days
Paul VI John Paul I 6 August 1978 26 August 1978 20 days
John Paul I John Paul II 28 September 1978 16 October 1978 18 days
John Paul II Benedict XVI 2 April 2005 19 April 2005 17 days
Benedict XVI Francis 28 February 2013 13 March 2013 13 days

Other Roman Catholic dioceses

The term "sede vacante" can be applied to other Catholic dioceses outside of Rome. In such cases, this means that the particular diocesan bishop has either died, resigned, transferred to a different diocese, or lost his office and a replacement has not yet been named. If there is a coadjutor bishop for the diocese, then this period does not take place, as the coadjutor bishop (or coadjutor archbishop, in the case of an archdiocese) immediately succeeds to the episcopal see.

Within eight days after the see is known to be vacant, the college of consultors (or the cathedral chapter in some countries)[4] is obliged to elect a diocesan administrator.[5] The administrator they choose must be a priest or bishop who is at least 35 years old.[6]

If the college of consultors fails to elect a qualifying person within the time allotted, the choice of diocesan administrator passes to the metropolitan archbishop or, if the metropolitan see is vacant, to the senior-most by appointment of the suffragan bishops.[7]

Before the election of the diocesan administrator of a vacant see, the governance of the see is entrusted, with the powers of a vicar general, to the auxiliary bishop, if there is one, or to the senior among them, if there are several, otherwise to the college of consultors as a whole. The diocesan administrator has greater powers, essentially those of a bishop except for matters excepted by the nature of the matter or expressly by law.[8] Canon law subjects his activity to various legal restrictions and to special supervision by the college of consultors (as for example canons 272 and 485).

Vicars general and episcopal vicars lose their powers sede vacante if they are not bishops;[9] the vicars that are themselves bishops retain the powers they had before the see fell vacant, which they are to exercise under the authority of the administrator.[10]

Other uses

The term has been adopted in Sedevacantism, an extreme[11][12][13] strand of the Catholic traditionalist movement. Sedevacantists believe that all popes since the Second Vatican Council have been heretics, and that therefore the see of Rome is vacant.

See also


  1. ^ "Motu proprio ''Normas nonnullas''". Retrieved 2013-05-11. 
  2. ^ "Declaration of Resignation,, 11 Feb 2013". Retrieved 2013-05-11. 
  3. ^ As is usual in English, in canon law also (Code of Canon Law, canon 203) the initial day is not counted in calculating the length of a period, unless the period began with the beginning of the day.
  4. ^ See Codex Iuris Canonici Canon 502 § 3 (noting that an episcopal conference can transfer the functions of the consultors to the cathedral chapter).
  5. ^ "Code of Canon Law, canon 421 §1". 2007-05-04. Retrieved 2013-05-11. 
  6. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 425 §1. The word used (sacerdos) applies also to a bishop, not just a priest.
  7. ^ "Code of Canon Law, canons 421 §2 and 425 §3". 2007-05-04. Retrieved 2013-05-11. 
  8. ^ "Code of Canon Law, canons 426-427". 2007-05-04. Retrieved 2013-05-11. 
  9. ^ Codex Iuris Canonici Canon 481 § 1.
  10. ^ Codex Iuris Canonici Canon 409 § 2.
  11. ^ (Greenwood Publishing Group 2006 ISBN 978-0-31305078-7), p. 16Introduction to New and Alternative Religions in AmericaEugene V. Gallagher, W. Michael Ashcraft (editors),
  12. ^ (Scarecrow Press 2012 ISBN 978-0-81085755-1), p. 434Historical Dictionary of CatholicismWilliam J. Collinge,
  13. ^ (Indiana University Press 1995 ISBN 978-0-25332922-6), p. 257Being Right: Conservative Catholics in AmericaMary Jo Weaver, R. Scott Appleby (editors),

External links

  • Catholic Encyclopedia: Canon Law
  • Canon Law Commentary, Discussion and Bibliography
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