Vacancy of the Holy See

The period between the death or resignation of a Pope and the election of his successor, is formally referred to as “The Vacancy of the Apostolic See.” It can also be called the Papal Interregnum, from the Latin for between the reign (of one Pope and another). It is a period governed by papal law, which admits of no changes to Church governance, or to the spiritual or material patrimony of St. Peter, save the election of his successor.


Resignation of a Pope


When a Pope Dies


Mourning Period


Funeral and Burial


Before the Conclave


Entry Into the Conclave




Special Provisions


Results of the Vote

Resignation of a Pope

After the resignation of Pope Celestine V in 1294, Pope Boniface VIII inserted into the corpus of canon law a provision for the resignation of a pope. When ecclesiastical law was organized into a Code of Canon Law in 1917, this law was included. It likewise passed into the 1983 Code of Canon Law promulgated by Pope John Paul II.

Canon 332, 2 states: If it should happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that he makes the resignation freely and that it be duly manifested, but not that it be accepted by anyone.

This canon applies the general principles governing resignations from office (cf. canons 187-189) to the special case of the Roman Pontiff. Since a Pope is not subject to any earthly authority, including the College of Cardinals and the Apostolic College (the Bishops), there is no one who need, or even can, accept it, refuse to accept it, or change the character of its terms. It need only be freely made as an interior act of will (without force or coercion) and duly manifested to the Church.

Benedict XVI

On Monday 11 February 2013, Pope Benedict XVI publicly manifested his decision to lay down the responsibilities of the papal office on Thursday 28 February at 8 p.m. Rome time (2 pm Eastern). On that day he will travel to Castel Gondolfo, the papal summer palace in the Alban Hills, south of Rome, returning at a future date to live in the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery contained within the grounds of Vatican City.

The Holy See has also announced that the current pontiff will play no role in the conclave to elect his successor. That process is governed by Universi Dominici Gregis, the special law on electing a pope. It requires that the Conclave begin on the 15th day after the February 28th vacancy (or March 15th). For serious reasons the Cardinals may choose to postpone as late as the 20th day (March 20th). Unless Pope Benedict sets a different date, while still Pope, this law will determine the beginning of the Conclave to elect Benedict’s successor.

When a Pope Dies

Regardless of the circumstances, when a Pope dies certain procedures specified in Church law, specifically the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, must be followed. First among these is the certification that he is truly dead. This task falls to the Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church.

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, the Camerlengo ascertains that the Pope is dead. Naturally, this could require the assistance of medical personnel. Having made this determination, the Chancellor of the Apostolic Camera draws up the official death certificate. The Camerlengo then seals the Pope’s bedroom and study. Its unsealing and the disposition of its contents must wait the election of his successor. If the deceased Pope has left a will naming an executor for his personal belongings, the executor is responsible for faithfully carrying out the will, and for giving an account of his service to the new Pope.

Having certified that the Pope is dead, the Camerlengo notifies the Archpriest of the Vatican Basilica, and the Cardinal Vicar of the Diocese of Rome. It is the Cardinal Vicar who publicly announces to the City of Rome that its Bishop has died. Between the Camerlengo and the Prefect of the Papal Household, the Dean of the College of Cardinals must be informed. The Dean, in turn, officially notifies the other Cardinals, and calls them to Rome. He also notifies the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, and the Heads of State of the various nations. The Camerlengo must must also take custody of the Apostolic Palaces of the Vatican, the Lateran Palace and Castel Gondolpho, that is, the various personal quarters of the Pope.

After the Pope’s body has been properly prepared it is taken to the Sistine Chapel for the private veneration of the Papal Household and the Cardinals. Afterwards it is taken to the Patriarchal Basilica of the Vatican, St. Peter’s, where it will lie in state.

Mourning Period

The period of mourning, like the period of the interregnum or vacancy, begins when a Pope dies. The day of death is counted as the first day of this period. The College of Cardinals will also declare an official mourning period of nine days, called the Novendiales*, which during the Vacancy after the death of Pope John Paul II began on the day of the funeral, counted as Day 1 of the Novendiales. On each of the nine days a different Cardinal celebrates a public funeral rite for the Holy Father, following the Ordo Exsequiarum Romani Pontificis (2000).

For other celebrants, the Missal provides a Mass formula “For a Deceased Pope,” and the Liturgy of the Hours an Office of the Dead, which can be used during this time, if the liturgical season permits. In 2005, since Pope John Paul II died during the Octave of Easter (on the Vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday), the initial rites celebrated for him observed the liturgical precedence which the Octave of Easter, the Sundays of Easter and Solemnities which are Holy Days, have (the Annunciation had been transferred out of Holy Week in 2005 to 4 April). However, excluding Sundays, the Mass formula for a deceased Pope, and the Office of the Dead with proper, were able to be celebrated during the Easter Season.

Prior to his burial, and following private rites in the Sistine Chapel, the Pope is laid in state in St. Peter’s Basilica, permitting the faithful to pay their respects. In Pope John Paul II’s case, this was preceded by a period of visitation for the Papal Household, Civil Dignitaries and Diplomats, held in the Clementina Hall of the Apostolic Palace.

After the Funeral and Burial the mourning period continues until the nine days are completed.

*novendiales/novemdiales (Latin) and novendiali (Italian): From novem (nine) and dies (days), meaning lasting nine days. A religious festival of nine days length, or, the ceremonies honoring a deceased, which in ancient Rome ended on the ninth day of death with a funereal feast (the novendialis). The English word novena, for nine days of prayer, shares the same root.

Funeral and Burial

Between the fourth and sixth day after death (that is, on the 5th, 6th or 7th day of the mourning period) a Solemn Funeral Mass is celebrated in St. Peter’s Basilica for a deceased Pope. In John Paul II’s case the funeral and burial was Friday 8 April 2005. The principal celebrant is always the Dean of the College of Cardinals, who at the time of Pope John Paul II’s death was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during John Paul II’s pontificate, and now Pope Benedict XVI.

The Solemn Funeral Mass is concelebrated by the other Cardinals, the Patriarchs, Archbishops and Bishops, Prelates of the Papal Household, Abbots, religious and Roman clergy. Noteworthy in the Funeral Mass are the singing of the Gregorian Introit (entrance chant) “Requiem aeternam dona eis domine” (Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord), the rite of Commendation (with the blessing and incensing of the body), and the Farewell at the end of Mass with its hymn “In Paradisum deducant te angeli” (May the angels lead you into paradise).

The deceased Pope is then buried. These ceremonies include covering the face with a veil of white silk, placing at the feet of the deceased pope a red silk bag containing bronze and silver medals from each year of his pontificate, the reading and signing of the official notification of burial, which is then inserted into a lead tube, sealed, and placed in the coffin. After the coffin is closed, it is sealed and placed in a lead coffin, which itself is sitting in an outer coffin of oak. Finally, the coffins are hermetically sealed and placed in the “ground” (that is, below the floor level of the crypt), over which is placed a marble slab bearing the the Pope’s name. Pope John Paul II was buried in the grottoes of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Requiem Aeternam

Antiphon: Requiem aeternum dona eis Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Te decet hymnus, Deus, in Sion, et tibi reddetur votum in Jerusalem: Antiphon

Exaudi orationem meam, ad te omnis caro veniet. Antiphon

Antiphon: Grant him, O Lord, eternal rest, and may perpetual light shine upon him.

It is right, O God, to sing to thee a hymn in Zion, and in Jerusalem render thee a vow: Antiphon

Thou hearest our prayers, to thee all flesh must come. Antiphon

In Paradisum

In paradisum deducant te angeli:

in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres,

et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Jerusalem.

Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere aeternam habeas requiem.

May the Angels conduct you to Paradise: And at your coming may the Martyrs receive you. May they lead you to the holy City of Jerusalem.

May a choir of Angels receive you. And may you, with Larzarus – once a poor man – Possess eternal peace.

Before the Conclave

The days after the funeral and before the Conclave begins offers the cardinals an opportunity to discuss the state of the Church. They may not do so in a manner which constitutes politicking or electioneering for office or for votes.

“The Cardinal electors shall … abstain from any form of pact, agreement, promise or other commitment of any kind which could oblige them to give or deny their vote to a person or persons” (UDG 81)

Nor may the Cardinals,

“enter into any stipulations, committing themselves of common accord to a certain course of action should one of them be elevated to the Pontificate” (UDG 82).

Such promises would, in fact, be null and void (ibid).

There may, however, be “during the period in which the See is vacant, the exchange of views concerning the election” (UDG 81)

If despite the solemn law of the Church, and the penalty of automatic excommunication for selling or trading votes, the validity of the election itself shall not be in doubt. Universi Dominici Gregis states,

79. If—God forbid—in the election of the Roman Pontiff the crime of simony were to be perpetrated, I decree and declare that all those guilty thereof shall incur excommunication latae sententiae. At the same time I remove the nullity or invalidity of the same simoniacal provision, in order that—as was already established by my Predecessors—the validity of the election of the Roman Pontiff may not for this reason be challenged.

Entry Into the Conclave

The day on which the Conclave begins is ordinarily to be the fifteenth day after the death of a Pope, the 16th day of the Interregnum. However, the College of Cardinals is given the faculty by Universi Dominici Gregis to defer its beginning “for serious reasons” up to the 20th day after death (21st day of the Vacancy). It must begin on or before that day.

On the morning of the first day on which the Conclave is to begin, the Cardinal Electors gather in St. Peter’s Basilica, or another place as may be determined by the College, 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. (For the Conclave of April 2005, they processed from the Hall of Benediction instead, owing to renovations in progress in the Pauline Chapel.) Having arrived at the Sistine Chapel, they make a solemn oath in Latin to observe the prescriptions of the law governing the election, to observe the secrecy obliged, and to not assist any secular power which may try to influence the election. They also swear that if elected they will faithfully carry out the Petrine Office, and protect the spiritual and temporal rights of the Holy See. In April 2005 the Cardinals permitted the procession and oath to be carried by television and radio.

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 in the Conclave to leave the Chapel. Besides the Electors, only the Master of Papal Liturgical Ceremonies and the ecclesiastic chosen beforehand 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 have been clarified, by a majority decision of the Cardinals the election can proceed.

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.

On this first day of the Conclave, 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.


During the Pre-Scrutiny the ballots are prepared and distributed, and, 9 Electors are chosen by lot to serve as 3 Scrutineers, 3 Infirmarii and 3 Revisers.

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.

The Infirmarii are three Cardinal Electors 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.

The Revisers are 3 Cardinal Electors 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.


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 through the word eligo (I elect) and placed on a thread for security.

When all ballots have been read the ends of the thread are tied in a knot and the ballots are placed in a receptacle on one end of the table.


The Scrutineers tabulate the vote count they recorded by individuals receiving votes. They do this on a separate sheet of paper from that on which the vote count was first made. The Revisers then verify the results.

Special Provisions

In the case of difficulty electing, understood as three days of voting without an election, voting is to be suspending for up to, but not exceeding, one full day, to allow prayer and discussion. Voting is then resumed for seven ballots. Such suspensions followed by seven ballots may as necessary unti la pope is elected.

At the time of the election of Pope Benedict XVI the Electors had the faculty to vote to elect by an absolute majority, instead of two-thirds, or, to vote between the two top vote recipients of a previous ballot, with election by an absolute majority (UDG 75), if the election was deadlocked. This provision has been revoked by Pope Benedict XVI, however, in De Aliquibus Mutationibus. To elect, any vote must be by 2/3rds majority.

Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis

74. In the event that the Cardinal electors find it difficult to agree on the person to be elected, after balloting has been carried out for three days in the form described above (in Nos. 62ff) without result voting is to be suspended for a maximum of one day in order to allow a pause for prayer, informal discussion among the voters, and a brief spiritual exhortation given by the senior Cardinal in the Order of Deacons. Voting is then resumed in the usual manner, and after seven ballots, if the election has not taken place, there is another pause for prayer, discussion and an exhortation given by the senior Cardinal in the Order of Priests. Another series of seven ballots is then held and, if there has still been no election, this is followed by a further pause for prayer, discussion and an exhortation given by the senior Cardinal in the Order of Bishops. Voting is then resumed in the usual manner and, unless the election occurs, it is to continue for seven ballots.

[Revoked: 75. If the balloting does not result in an election even after the provisions of No. 74 have been fulfilled, the Cardinal electors shall be invited by the Camerlengo to express an opinion about the manner of proceeding. The election will then proceed in accordance with what the absolute majority of the electors decides.

Nevertheless, there can be no waiving of the requirement that a valid election takes place only by an absolute majority of the votes or else by voting only on the two names which in the ballot immediately preceding have received the greatest number of votes; also in this second case only an absolute majority is required.]

76. Should the election take place in a way other than that prescribed in the present Constitution, or should the conditions laid down here not be observed, the election is for this very reason null and void, without any need for a declaration on the matter; consequently, it confers no right on the one elected.

Results of the Vote

When the Scrutineers have tabulated the results, and the Revisers have verified them, they are announced. A super majority of two-thirds of those actually voting is required to elect, unless the special provisions for a difficult election have been invoked.

No Election

If less than two-thirds of the votes have been cast for the same person, or less than the majority required by the special provisions for a deadlocked conclave, an election has not occurred. If it was the first ballot of the session the Electors proceed to vote again. After the second ballot the ballots of both sessions are burned, whether an election occurs or not.


If two-thirds of the votes have been cast for the same person, or the majority required by the special provisions for a deadlocked conclave, an election has occurred. 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.


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?

By giving consent, the one elected, provided he holds the episcopal order, immediately becomes the Bishop of Rome and Supreme Pontiff. If the one elected is not present, he would have to be summoned. If not a bishop he would have to be ordained one before proceeding.

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 by all present.

Announcement by Proto-deacon

Following the vesting of the Pope the senior Cardinal Deacon announces the new Pope from the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica to those gathered in the Square and listening or watching throughout the world. He says (using the example of Pope Benedict’s announcement):

Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus papam.

Eminentissimum ac Reverendissimum Dominum, Dominum Iosephum, Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Ratzinger

Qui sibi nomen imposuit Benedictum XVI.

[I announce to you a great joy. We have a Pope. The Most Eminent and Most Reverend Lord, Lord Joseph, Cardinal of Holy Roman Church, Ratzinger, who has taken the name Benedict XVI.]

For the election of the successor of Pope John Paul II the Proto-Deacon was Jorge Arturo Cardinal Medina Estévez.

The newly elected Pope then comes out to address and bless the City and the World (Urbi et Orbi).

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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.


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 unusual 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 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).

Office of the Camerlengo

The Office of the Camerlengo, historically known as the Apostolic Camera, is responsible for insuring 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, assisted by the Vice-Camerlengo, who like the Camerlengo is appointed by the Pope. They will be helped by three Cardinal Assistants, one of whom is the Cardinal Coordinator of the Council, and two others, whose appontments are established in the norms concerning the vacancy of the Apostolic See and the election of the Roman Pontiff.   

During the period of vacancy the Camerlengo and his assistants gather reports from the departments of the Holy See, inlcuding those related to budgets and fianances, 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 Supreme 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.

Apostolic Constitution

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.

2013 Modifications of Electoral Law
Inaugural Mass of Pope Francis
Domus Sanctae Marthae and New Urns Used in Election
Solemn Funeral Mass for John Paul II
Inaugural Mass of Pope Benedict XVI