Interregnum Terms and Expressions
- Question and Answer Format

Interregnum, In General

College of Cardinals

The Conclave

The Papacy

Holy See & Vatican

Papal Interregnum, In General

What does Papal Interregnum mean? 

The Papal Interregnum is an expression derived from Latin which means the period between the reign of one Pope and another. It is the time of the vacancy of the Apostolic See, that is, from the moment a Pope dies to the moment of election of his successor.

What happens when the Pope dies? 

The Cardinal who is Camerlengo, or Chamberlain, of the Holy Roman Church, is notified.  

In the presence of the Master of Papal Liturgical Ceremonies, the Cleric Prelates of the Apostolic Camera, and the Secretary and the Chancellor of the Apostolic Camera, he officially ascertains that the Pope is dead. The Chancellor draws up the official death certificate, and the Camerlengo seals the Pope’s bedroom and study.  

He notifies the Archpriest of the Vatican Basilica, and the Cardinal Vicar of the Diocese of Rome, who announces it to the People of Rome.  

The Camerlengo takes custody of the Apostolic Palaces of the Vatican, the Lateran Palace and Castel Gondolpho. After the Pope’s funeral he seals the entire Papal Apartment, having found quarters for those who had resided there to serve the Pope.

What happens during the Interregnum? 

The day of the Pope’s death is counted as the first day of the Interregnum or Vacancy. Three phases can be identified.

1)  The 9 Day Period of Mourning, or Novendiales. The Pope is laid in state in St. Peter’s Basilica, permitting the faithful to pay their respects. Every day each Cardinal celebrates a Memorial Mass. Between the fourth and sixth day of this period a Solemn Funeral is celebrated in St. Peter’s Basilica by the Dean of the College of Cardinals, with the other Cardinals. The deceased Pope is then buried, most likely in the crypt of St. Peter’s.  The mourning period then continues until the nine days are completed.

2)     The Conclave preparation period, from Day 10 to the beginning of the Conclave.

3)     The Conclave itself, from the time the Cardinals enter the Conclave until the one elected accepts his election.  

What is the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis?  

Promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1996 it is the current law of the Church governing the entire period of the vacancy, from the death of the current Pope to the election of a new one. In general, Pope John Paul II’s Constitution continues the traditional practices of election, with a few  changes, such as the elimination of election by acclamation and by consensus. It spells out in detail the authority of the College of Cardinals, prohibits all but the most ordinary business of the Holy See, and provides for penalties if its norms are broken.  

What are the Novendiales? 

This is the nine day period of mourning for a deceased Pope. During this time funeral rites are celebrated daily in Rome by the Cardinals, and Masses are offered for the repose of his soul throughout the world. The body of the Pope lies in state in St. Peter’s Basilica until between the fourth and the sixth day after his death, unless unusually circumstances require the Cardinals to choose a different date, at which time his funeral is held and he is buried in accordance with his wishes. 

What happens to those in Office in the Roman Curia when the Pope dies? 

Since supreme teaching, legislating and judicial authority rests with the Pope, all but the most ordinary business of the Holy See comes to a stop. The highest office holders, such as the Cardinals who are Prefects of Congregations and Presidents of Pontifical Councils and Commissions, all lose their offices with the death of the Pope.  

There are two exceptions 1) the Cardinal who is Camerlengo or Chamberlain of the Holy Roman Church, an office which deals primarily with the period of the Papal Interregnum or Vacancy, and 2) the Cardinal who is the Major Penitentiary, and responsible for matters concerning the internal forum of conscience (e.g. absolution from excommunications reserved to the Holy See). 

What is the Apostolic Camera? 

The Apostolic Camera is the department of the Roman Curia which exists to ensure the continued functioning of the Holy See upon the death of the Pope. It is headed by the Camerlengo, or Chamberlain, of the Holy Roman Church who, assisted by the Vice-Camerlengo and other officials. 

What does the Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church do? 

The Camerlengo, or Chamberlain, of the Holy Roman Church presides over the Apostolic Camera. It is the Camerlengo who certifies the death of the Pope. During the period of vacancy the Camerlengo and his assistants gather reports from the departments of the Holy See so that the College of Cardinals is able to manage the ordinary affairs of the Church. This is necessary because all department heads lose their offices with the vacancy of the Roman See, except for the Camerlengo and the Major Penitentiary. 

Who is the Major Penitentiary? 

The Major Penitentiary is in charge of the Apostolic Penitentiary, the dicastery of the Holy See responsible for indulgences, the provision of confessors for the patriarchal basilicas in Rome, and judging questions of conscience, called  internal forum, submitted for adjudication to the Holy See. These latter including dispensations and absolution from sanctions, such as excommunication, which are reserved in law to the Holy See (e.g. a priest who breaks the seal of confession). This ordinary work continues during the vacancy of the Roman See, so that souls may continue to benefit. The Major Penitentiary is one of two curial department heads who do not lose their offices with the vacancy of the Holy See. The other is the Camerlengo.

College of Cardinals

What is a Cardinal? 

The ecclesiastical rank of Cardinal dates from the time of Pope Sylvester I, around 315 AD. It was given to the closest advisors of the Pope. With time it came to be reserved to those whom the Pope had given pastoral responsibility for the 7 suburban dioceses of the Roman Province, as well as the Roman churches, and deaconries. Today the Cardinals each possess only a titular office as a bishop, priest or deacon of Rome, but without actual responsibility for the dioceses, parishes and deaconries. The actual offices held by Cardinals today are within the Roman Curia or as archbishop of an important diocese. Cardinals, therefore, are generally bishops, though the Popes may grant exceptions. In recent decades this exception has been granted for theologians the Popes have wished to honor. Under current law, a Cardinal must at least be a priest. 

What is the College of Cardinals? 

The College of Cardinals is composed of the men whom the Pope has elevated to the dignity of Cardinal, entrusting them with the duty to be his close advisors and collaborators, and to elect his successor. The decisions of the College are made collectively, and ratified by the Pope, unless of course there is no Pope. During such a Papal Interregnum the Cardinals gather in General Congregation to decide by majority vote on the funeral of the Pope, the beginning of the Conclave to elect a new Pope, as well as any ordinary business of the Holy See which cannot wait, in keeping with papal law, currently the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis

What is the history of the College of Cardinals? 

Close advisors to the Pope were called Cardinals, from the Latin for hinge, since the 4th century. Since 1059 Cardinals have served as the exclusive electors of the Popes, and the College itself was given its current form in 1150. Over the centuries the number of Cardinals was held below 70, a biblically significant number, since there were seventy elders assisting Moses in leading Israel and assisting Jesus in His ministry (Luke 10:1). However, both Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II went beyond this number in order to internationalize the College with bishops from around the world. Today there are up to 120 Electors, and sometimes more, and as many Cardinals as 170, a number which include those who have reached the age of eligibility to vote, 80 years. 

What is the Dean of the College of Cardinals? 

The Dean of the College of Cardinals is a Cardinal Bishop who is elected by his fellow Cardinal Bishops and confirmed in office by the Pope. Although he presides over the consistories and congregations of the College, he has no authority over other Cardinals. The decisions of the College are entirely collegial (collective). The Dean of the College convokes the Cardinals when the Pope dies and presides over their Congregations and the Conclave. He is the one who asks the electee to accept election as Pope.  

What is a Cardinal Bishop? 

Cardinals who hold the more important offices in the Roman Curia or who, being Patriarchs of Eastern Catholic Churches, have been granted equivalent dignity in law since Pope Paul VI, are called Cardinal Bishops. The smallest of the three ranks of Cardinals it traces its history to the role played in the early Church by the bishops of 7 dioceses surrounding Rome, called the suburcarian (suburban) Sees of Rome. Cardinal Bishops are said to hold the title, as opposed to the actual office, of those 7 Sees. The Cardinal Dean holds two titles, Ostia and the one he holds at the time of his promotion to Dean. Thus, there are only such six Cardinal Bishops at a time, plus however many Eastern Patriarchs there are. 

What is a Cardinal Priest? 

Cardinals Priests are those Cardinals who hold the middle, and by far the most numerous, rank of the College of Cardinals. They include officials of the Roman Curia, as well as Archbishops of major dioceses from around the world. Cardinal Priests hold title to a particular church of the Roman See, a dim historical reflection of the very early practice of the clergy of Rome participating in the election of the Pope. Within the rank of Cardinal Priest cardinals hold seniority based on date of appointment, and may even advance by promotion by the Pope to the higher grade of Cardinal Bishop.  

What is a Cardinal Deacon? 

Cardinals Deacons hold the lowest of the ranks of Cardinals. There ranks include officials of the Roman Curia, and theologians honored by the Pope for their contribution to the Church. In the early centuries there were 7 deacons who administered seven districts of the Roman diocese, as well as 7 deacons who assisted in the papal household. Although the rank of Cardinal Deacon numbers more than 14 today, they hold title as if assigned to a church in one of three deaconries of Rome. Cardinal Deacons may advance by promotion by the Pope to the higher ranks of the College of Cardinals.  

What is a Congregation? 

The gathering of the Cardinals to advise the Pope, or assist him in his duties, is called a Congregation. Also, the major departments of the Roman Curia are called Congregations because they are made up of a number of voting Cardinals headed by a Cardinal Prefect. During the vacancy of the Apostolic See, from the time of the death of the Pope until the beginning of the election of his successor, the decisions regarding the ordinary affairs of the Holy See, as well as the funeral, burial and election of the Pope, are decided by such gatherings of the Cardinals. 

What is a General Congregation? 

General Congregations are meetings of all the Cardinals who are not legitimately impeded from attending by sickness or other lawful reasons. They decide the more significant matters related to the Papal Interregnum. The scope of their authority is entirely governed by the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, which permits absolutely no innovations in the functioning of the Holy See while there is no Pope. The General Congregation, however, can decide disputed points of interpretation of the law. 

What is a Particular Congregation? 

Particular Congregations are composed of the Camerlengo (Chamberlain) of the Holy Roman Church, and 3 other Cardinals, called Assistants, chosen by lot from each of the three ranks of Cardinals. These Particular Congregations handle the ordinary business of the Roman Church, referring anything significant to the General Congregation. New Assistants are elected by lot after they have served for three days.

The Conclave

What is the Conclave?

Conclave is the unique name given to the gathering of the Cardinals to elect a Pope. The Cardinal Electors, as they are known, along with certain assistants, are sequestered away from any contact with the outside world, in living quarters inside Vatican City. The secrecy of the Conclave is absolute, even from other Cardinals not themselves Electors. Only a Pope can grant the faculty of discussing the Conclave with anyone not present.  

Who can be a Cardinal Elector? 

The Cardinal Electors are those Cardinals who are under the age of 80 on the day on which the Pope dies. All such Cardinals, even if their selection as Cardinal has only been announced, are obliged to participate in the Conclave as Electors. The exceptions are those who are legitimately prevented by illness or other circumstances, those who have been canonically deposed by the Pope, or from whom the Pope has accepted the renunciation of the cardinalate.  

When may the Conclave begin? 

From the time of the vacancy of the Apostolic See until the beginning of the Conclave, no less than 15 full days, and no more than 20, may elapse. This means that the Conclave may begin no earlier than the 16th Day of the Interregnum, nor start later than the 21st Day. 

May a Cardinal enter the Conclave after it has started?  

Cardinal Electors who have been legitimately delayed, or who leave for a reason recognized in law, may enter, or re-enter, the Conclave while it is in progress. The judgment regarding whether the reason is legitimate rests with the majority of the Cardinal Electors who are present. 

Who remains within the sealed area of the Vatican? 

In addition to the Electors, the following are sequestered within the Conclave area: the Secretary of the College of Cardinals, who acts as Secretary for the electoral assembly, the Master of Papal Liturgical Ceremonies, two Masters of Ceremonies, two Religious from the Papal Sacristy, and an ecclesiastic to assist the Cardinal Dean.

Also, several priests must be available to hear confessions in different languages, two doctors, kitchen and housekeeping staff, and any nurses who may be needed to assist ailing Cardinals. These individuals must be previously approved by the Camerlengo and his three Assistants, and all must take an oath not to discuss what they may hear with anyone.

Where do those who vote or assist in the Conclave live?

The Cardinal Electors live in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the St. Martha’s Residence, within Vatican City. They are transported to the Sistine Chapel of the Apostolic Palace for the voting sessions. All other individuals are lodged in appropriate quarters within Vatican City.

What ceremonies attend the beginning of the Conclave?

As a rule, on the morning of the first day of the Conclave the Cardinal Electors gather in St. Peter’s Basilica, or another place as may be determined, to celebrate a Votive Mass for the Election of the Pope.

In the afternoon they gather in the Pauline Chapel of the Apostolic Palace. Invoking the assistance of the Holy Spirit with the Veni Creator Spiritu, they process to the Sistine Chapel. There they take a solemn oath to observe the prescriptions of the law governing the election, to observe the secrecy obliged, to not assist any secular power which may try to influence the election, and if elected to faithfully carry out the Petrine Office, and to protect the spiritual and temporal rights of the Holy See.

After the last Cardinal Elector has taken the oath, the Master of Papal Liturgical ceremonies gives the order Extra omnes, commanding everyone not authorized to remain to leave the Chapel. Besides the Electors, only the Master of Papal Liturgical Ceremonies and the ecclesiastic chosen to give a meditation to the Cardinals on the seriousness of their duties, remains. When the meditation has been concluded, both of these men depart the Sistine Chapel.

After the Cardinals recite prayers provided in the proper Ordo for the Conclave, the Cardinal Dean inquiries if any Electors have questions concerning the norms and procedures. Once these are clarified, if a majority of the Cardinals agree the election can begin.

Who remains in the Conclave during the election?

Only the Cardinal Electors may remain in the Sistine Chapel during the actual voting, which by law is from after the ballots have been distributed until after they have been tabulated and checked. Outside of the time of actual voting, the Secretary of the College, the Master of Papal Liturgical Ceremonies and the 2 Masters of Ceremonies are present to assist the Conclave.

How many ballots are there each day in the Conclave?

On the first day of the Conclave, that on which the opening rites are carried out, only one ballot is permitted. On the other days of the Conclave, two ballots are permitted in the morning session and two are permitted in the afternoon session.

What is the Election Procedure?

There are three phases to the election process.

1)     Pre-Scrutiny, during which ballots are prepared and distributed, and, 9 Electors are chosen by lot to serve as 3 Scrutineers, 3 Infirmarii and 3 Revisers.

2)     Scrutiny, during which the ballots are ceremoniously placed in a receptacle on a table in front of the altar and beneath Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, then are mixed and counted.

3)     Post-Scrutiny, during which the ballots are counted, checked and burned.

Who are the Scrutineers?

The Scrutineers are three Cardinal Electors chosen by lot to gather and count the ballots. They stand at the altar as the Electors come up individually to deposit their votes. One of them also collects the votes of those present who are not physically able to come up to the altar. Afterwards, sitting at a table in front of the altar they tabulate the ballots to determine if an election has occurred.

Who are the Infirmarii?

The Infirmarii are three Cardinal Electros chosen by lot to take ballots to Electors who although within the enclosure of the Conclave are too sick to be present in the Sistine Chapel. They take with them a locked box which, having been shown to the other Electors to be empty, receives the votes of the infirm. They return it unopened to the Scrutineers.

Who are the Revisers?

The Revisers are 3 Cardinal Electros chosen by lot to check the ballot count and the notes of the Scrutineers to determine if the tabulation of the ballots was carried out exactly and faithfully.

How is the vote counted?

After all ballots are in, including those brought from the sick by the Infirmarii,  the 1st Scrutineer shakes the receptacle several times to mix the ballots. Then the 3rd Scrutineer counts them, placing them in a second, empty, receptacle. If the number of ballots does not equal the number of electors, they are burned, and a second vote taken immediately. Otherwise, the Scrutineers proceed to tabulate the vote.

Sitting at a table in front of the altar, the 1st Scrutineer silently reads the name on a ballot, passes it to the 2nd Scrutineer who does likewise, and then passes it to the 3rd Scrutineer, who reads the name aloud and then writes it down. Each Elector also writes it down on a sheet provided for this purpose. The ballot is then pierced with a needle and placed on a thread for security.

When all ballots have been read the Scrutineers tabulate the vote by individuals receiving votes. They do this on a separate sheet of paper from that on which they were first listed. The Revisers then verify the results. If two-thirds of the votes have been cast for the same person an election has occurred. In which case, the Scrutineers, with the assistance of the Secretary of the Conclave and the Masters of Ceremony, who are re-admitted to the Conclave at this point, proceed to burn the ballots. However, if no election occurred and it was the first ballot of the session they proceed to vote again. After the second ballot the ballots of both sessions are burned, whether an election occurred or not.

What happens when an election occurs?

After the junior Cardinal Deacon has re-admitted the Secretary of the College and the Master of Papal Liturgical Ceremonies, the Cardinal Dean, or, the Cardinal who is first in order and seniority, goes to the one elected and asks,

Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?

With consent he becomes Bishop of Rome and Pope. The Cardinal Dean then asks,

By what name do you wish to be called?

The Master of Papal Liturgical Ceremonies, with the witness of the two Masters of Ceremonies (who are now summoned), draw up a document certifying the consent of the one elected and the name he has chosen.

Following certain formalities prescribed in the ritual for the Conclave, each Cardinal comes forward in turn and makes an act of homage and obedience to the new Pope. An act of thanksgiving is then made.

Following the vesting of the Pope the senior Cardinal Deacon announces from the loggia of St. Peter’s to those gathered in the Square that we have a Pope (Habemus papam) and what name he has taken. The newly elected Pope then comes out to address and bless the City and the World (Urbi et Orbi).

Can someone not in the Conclave be elected Pope? 

Yes, a Cardinal who is not an Elector, a bishop who is not a Cardinal, a priest, or theoretically a layman, could be elected Pope. If he is not present in the Vatican the ritual for the Conclave specifics a procedure for obtaining his consent. If he is not a bishop he would have to be ordained one before he would become Pope.  

When is the Conclave over? 

The Conclave is concluded when the new Pope assents to his election, unless he determines to keep it in session longer for some reason.

What does Black or White Smoke signify? 

If any ballot produces an election those ballots are burned in a stove set up in the Sistine Chapel together with a chemical which produces a white smoke. This signals to Rome and the World that a Pope has been elected. If, however, the first vote of a session does not produce an election they proceed to a second vote. If that, too, fails to elect a Pope, the ballots of both votes are burned with wet straw, producing black smoke.

What is the Sistine Chapel?

The Sistine Chapel is a chapel of the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican built for Pope Sixtus IV, after whom it was named. In 1508 Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo Buonarroti to decorate its vault, a task he completed in 1512. Between 1536 and 1541, Michelangelo painted the Last Judgment on the altar wall for Pope Paul III. It is in this Chapel, before the imposing painting of the Last Judgment, that the Cardinal Electors gather to choose a Pope. It is also here where the newly deceased Pope is viewed by the members of the Papal Household and the College of Cardinals, before being taken to lay in state in St. Peter’s Basilica for public visitation.

The Papacy

Who is the Pope?

Pope means father. In ancient Greek it was a child's term of affection (papa), but was borrowed by Latin as a title of honor. Both Greek-speaking Eastern, and Latin-speaking Western, Christians applied it to priests, bishops and patriarchs in the early Church. Even today, the faithful of the Orthodox Churches of Greece, Russia and Serbia call their parish priest pope. Gradually, however, Latin usage became restricted. At the beginning of the 3rd century, papa was a term of respect for churchmen in high positions; by the 5th century, it was applied particularly to the Bishop of Rome; and since the 8th century, as far the West is concerned, the title has been exclusively his.  

Does the Pope have other titles?

First and foremost he is the Bishop of Rome. From this office derives all the other offices and titles he holds. As the Roman bishop he is the Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province. He is the Primate (First Bishop) of Italy. He is the Patriarch of the West, that is, of the Western or Latin Church. As Successor of Peter, he is the Vicar of Jesus Christ, the Supreme Pontiff, and Pastor of the Universal Church. He is also known as the Servant of the Servants of God. As spiritual father to all Christians he is called Pope or papa, and Holy Father and Holiness, not because he is holy but because the things of Christ which he administers are holy. In worldly matters, he is the Sovereign of the Vatican City State. All of these offices belong to the man elected Bishop of Rome. 

What does the title Supreme Pontiff mean?

A Pontiff, from the  Latin pontifex or bridge builder, was the title given in ancient Rome to priests, the mediators between the gods and men. In Christian teaching Christ is the one mediator between God and man. He alone is necessary, since He alone is the God-Man who reconciles mankind to the Father. However, He places human beings in roles of secondary mediation in order to effect His plan of salvation throughout human history. Applied to the Bishop of Rome, Pontiff points to the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ which he exercises as a bishop. As Pope he is said to be the Supreme Pontiff because he is the pastor not only of his own diocese, but of the universal Church, and thus his authority is supreme over the pontiffs, the bishops of the Church. 

What are the Keys of the Kingdom?

In the ancient world the keys were associated with the royal office of the Vizier, what we might today call both prime minister and treasurer. He literally carried the keys of the king attached to his belt. Thus, when Jesus said that He would give Peter the Keys of the Kingdom, which would “open and no one could close, and close and no one could open,” this image would have been readily understood. In Scripture only the Messiah and Peter are spoken of as having such authority. Peter is Christ’s Vicar, who with his successors in every age represents Christ, and opens and closes the treasury of heaven in His name.

What is the Papal Tiara?

The Papal Tiara is a tri-layered crown symbolizing the threefold authority of the Pope. The top crown represents universal pastoral authority, the middle crown universal jurisdiction in the Church, and the bottom crown, temporal authority. Of this last, only the Vatican City State remains from the papal states of the medieval era.

The triple tiara can also be understood to have a purely spiritual interpretation, Christ’s three-fold office of Priest, Prophet and King. The Lord communicated these offices to the Apostles, and in a particular way to Peter, so that they could sanctify, teach and govern in His name and by His authority.  

While the tiara remains a symbol of the papacy, appearing in the papal crest, the actual crown has not been worn since Pope Paul VI, who set aside many of the imperial trappings of the papacy. 

Who is the Vicar of Christ? 

The papal title Vicar of Christ is closely associated with Our Lord’s titles Son of David and King of Israel. It was foretold to David that a descendant of his would reign on his throne forever. This King is Jesus Christ, who reigns in an eternal spiritual Kingdom. Every King has a prime minister, a vizier or vicar, who carries out his will and who speaks in his name. Although the Kingdom of God has no material treasures to guard and dispense, it has spiritual treasures: the faith, the sacraments, the unity of the Church. These were committed to Peter by Our Lord under the symbol of the keys, a treasury and responsibility which is passed to those who follow Peter in his office as Vicar of Christ.

What is Papal Primacy? 

Papal Primacy refers to the supreme, immediate and ordinary authority of the Pope over everyone in the Church. Although the doctrine was only defined by the First Vatican Council in 1870, this primacy of jurisdiction has been exercised by St. Peter and the Bishops of Rome from the beginning of the Church. This can be seen in the norms announced by the Apostle at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, in the letter of his successor, Pope Clement, to Corinth from about 85 AD, in the dictum of St. Cyprian of Carthage “Rome has spoke, the case is closed,” and other examples from the early Church in which the Bishop of Rome acts as the highest authority in the universal Church.

What is the Petrine Charism? 

The Petrine Charism refers to the unique grace, or charism, which the Lord promised to St. Peter to assist him in his role as the Chief among the Apostles. In Mt 16:18, the Lord stated that hell would not prevail against the Church He would establish upon Peter. In Luke 22:31-32, Jesus says how He will bring it about that Peter will prevail over the Enemy – He will pray and obtain the grace for Peter to be unwavering in matters of Faith. This charism enables Peter to confirm his fellow apostles in the Faith, and through them us. Without a secure doctrine of the Faith the Church rests on shifting sands. With it, it is secure like a house built upon a Rock.

What is Papal Infallibility?

The charism of infallibility is the means by which Christ guarantees the unity of faith. Christ committed this task to Peter, when He gave him the responsibility to confirm the brethren in the faith (Lk. 22:31-32). Thus the Pope is preserved from error by the grace of Christ in his handing on of the apostolic faith and especially when he intends to define or clarify its meaning for the good of the Church. This charism of infallibility does NOT mean that he is personally sinless or always prudent in his moral judgments. The First Vatican Council solemnly defined Papal Infallibility in 1870.

What is the Magisterium?

Those to whom Our Lord committed his prophetic office are said to have a Magisterium, from the Latin word for teacher, Magister. This office was given to the apostles, who committed it to their successors, the bishops. Each bishop is the Magister for his own diocese. The entire body of the bishops, acting in union with the Pope, are official Teachers to the whole Church; that is, they have a Universal Magisterium.

Peter, however, was given the charism to teach even his fellow apostles. Thus, the Papal Magisterium is itself a Universal Magisterium. Furthermore, only the Successor of Peter has a personal charism of infallibility which protects him from error in teaching and defining the faith. The same is true of the Magisterium of the College of Bishops collectively, as in an Ecumenical Council.

What is a Papal Encyclical?

An Encyclical is perhaps the most familiar category of papal document. The name indicates a circular letter, after the pattern of the Catholic epistles of the New Testament. It expresses the mind of the Pope on matters of faith or morals. Although Encyclicals may contain fresh insights, they do not typically express new doctrine, but re-state for the entire Church, or a particular people, the Church’s constant teaching. Although an Apostolic Constitution is a higher category of document, it is used primarily for juridical acts, such as promulgating laws or establishing dioceses, and for Solemn Magisterial Teaching, such as a dogmatic definition. Thus, Encyclicals are the highest ordinary form of papal teaching document. Lower forms include Apostolic Letters, Exhortations, Homilies, Audiences, Discourses and Messages.

Holy See & Vatican

What is the Holy See or Apostolic See?

A See is a seat of authority, from the Latin sede. Jesus said the Pharisees sat on the chair of Moses (Mt. 23:2f). Judges sit on a bench, representing the authority of the state. Professors hold chairs of academic authority. And in the Church bishops possess chairs of spiritual authority. Thus, a diocese is called a See. The Roman diocese has been called the Apostolic See from ancient times. It is the seat of authority of the chief Apostle Peter and where the Apostles Peter and Paul were martyred. It is the Holy See, since its bishop has Christ’s authority over holy things. These expressions apply not only to the Pope, but also to those who assist him in governing the universal Church. [Code of Canon Law c. 361]

What is Vatican City State?

The Vatican City State is the world’s smallest sovereign state and where the Pope resides. It has its own diplomatic corps,  passport, laws, police, stamps, money and head of state, the Pope. The Vatican Concordat with Italy in 1928 established the City State, restoring the political autonomy of the Pope which he had enjoyed for centuries as sovereign of the Papal States. These States, which occupied a large region of central Italy, protected the Church from secular leaders who sought to manipulate her for their own purposes. They were lost to the Church when the forces of Italian unification entered Rome in 1870, causing Pope Pius IX to retreat to the Vatican. The Vatican Concordat settled the unresolved issue of the Pope’s temporal authority, by securing for him sovereignty over the Vatican, and certain other properties in and around Rome.

Where does the Vatican get its name?

The Vaticanus is small hill across the Tiber River from the center of Rome. In the first century it contained a palace and circus, belonging to the Emperor Nero. It was in Nero’s Circus (an oblong racetrack) that St. Peter was martyred, crucified upside-down. He was buried in a near-by garden containing other graves. A shrine indicating Peter’s presence was erected over the grave around 150 AD, and Peter’s bones hidden in a wall to protect them from desecration. After the Edict of Milan in 311, the Emperor Constantine gave this imperial property to Pope Sylvester. The first, or Constantinian, Basilica was built on the site. In the 16th century this Basilica was torn down and the current one erected. Excavations under the main altar since the 1940s have revealed the pagan graveyard, the shrine over Peter’s grave, as well as discovered the bones of St. Peter, along with the ancient graffiti  Petrus ibi est (Peter is here).

What is the Roman Curia?

Curia is a Latin term for a ruling body and its place of assembly. In ancient Rome the Senate met in the Curia, which can still be seen among the ruins of the Roman Forum. Within the Church the term is used for those who assist a bishop in the governance of his diocese. Thus, with respect to the Bishop of Rome, it applies to the members of the various Roman Congregations, Tribunals, Councils, Offices, Commissions and Committees who assist the Pope in the governance of the universal Church. The current authority, structure, responsibilities and operation of the Roma Curia is established in Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus of 1998, which continued the process of renewal of these institutions begun by Pope Paul VI. [see Code of Canon Law cc. 360-361]

What is a Dicastery? 

A Dicastery, from the Latin word dicasterium, is an office or department of the Roman Curia. The mission of the Roman dicasteries is to assist the Supreme Pontiff in his role as the principle of unity in the Church. Among the dicasteries are the Secretariat of State, the Congregations, such as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Tribunals, such as the Apostolic Signature, the Councils, such as the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and the Offices, such as the Apostolic Camera (which administers the goods of the Holy See during a vacancy).  Each dicastery is headed by a Cardinal, entitled Prefect or President, or presided over by an Archbishop. In addition they are composed of a body of cardinals (who meet periodically for the more important business), bishops, and other officials, consultors and employees, both clergy and laity.


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