Sede Vacante – where the papacy will go from here

Sede Vacante - camerlengo's arms

Arms of the Vatican state between papacies

The term ‘sede vacante’ is used to describe the interregnum between papacies. All elective monarchies have interregna. The term ‘sede vacante’ literally means the chair or seat is unoccupied. Sedes also corrupts to become See sometime in the fourth century. See is used to describe any apostolic jurisdiction and landed patrimony of a bishop or a patriarch.

The Holy See described the jurisdiction and patrimony of the Bishop of Rome. Until the reunification of Italy the secular patrimony was know to Europe as the Papal States. Like other princes and bishops the successors of St Peter presided from chairs of estate or cathedra or thrones as we might commonly call them.

Though there has been no papal coronation since that of Paul VI in 1963, the word ‘throne’  is particularly apt in reference to the papacy because despite the flurry of Media coverage over this business of Benedict XVI’s resignation (or more properly abdication) and the election of his successor, it has been lost on the generality of observers, that the key to understanding the papacy & how it works is to remember it is first and foremost an Elective monarchy; and that its monarch is an absolute prince. Indeed that is how it legally describes itself as a state.

The coat of arms above and to the right perfectly illustrates this point. The crossed keys, one silver; one gold  represent authority on earth and in heaven to which the pope lays special claim. They are the keys both to the temporal and the eternal kingdoms of earth and heaven given to St Peter with the authority: ‘what you loose on earth is loosed in Heaven and what you bind on earth is bound in heaven’. And for all that Pope Francis appears to be a cuddly man of the people his first act as Pope enlarged upon that claim in an even more complete sense than any of his predecessors. Not only did he issue a Plenary Indulgence (still those cursed indulgences that sparked Luther’s 95 theses in Wittenburg) with his first blessing to all present in Rome; Pope Francis issued it to the entire world: to all those watching him on any Media; and to ‘all men of good will’.Innocent III most surely would have approved and would have been proud of his Jesuit successor.

Above the keys in the coat of arms of ‘sede vacante’ is the umbrella or ombrellino of the Cardinal Camerlengo or Papal Chamberlain. This is the umbrella the chamberlain alone may hold over the head of a reigning pontiff when the pope presides ex cathedra – literally from the chair –  in the four Basilicas of Rome and within the presence chamber of the apostolic palaces. When the Camerlengo presides at a Pontifical High Mass in St Peter’s the closed Umbraculum is borne before him in the procession. Umbrellas were first used by the Pharaohs.The Popes modelled theirs upon the umbraculum of the Roman and Byzantine emperors. A white silk umbrella trimmed with gold has also been used since the establishment of the feast of Corpus Christi in the thirteenth century to cover the sacred consecrated bread when it is borne in procession.

This ‘little umbrella’ or Umbraculum symbolises both regal (executive) and sacred (priestly) power of the papacy being held in the collective of the College of Cardinals until the election of a new pope. The office of chamberlain belonged to the official presiding over theBasilica-Ombrellino public apartments, the ‘camera’ or ‘chamber’ of the royal household whereas a ‘steward’  or ‘great master’ or in the case of the Vatican since 1848 ‘Master of the Papal Household’ actually supervises the officers in the departments of supply or what those in Downton Abbey might think of as servants of the departments of service ‘below stairs’.

The fact the papacy is a monarchy does not merely affect its public face – as in does in the case of the monarchy of the House of Windsor –  it also defines the way the Vatican stateoperates as an institution  The Vatican bureaucracy essentially runs along the lines of a great monarchical household. The problems of any ageing prince, overseeing any executive monarchy from any time in history, are much the same as those faced by every pope of modern times. Indeed if we wish to understand how courts and governments of the early modern era operated prior to the French Revolution there is perhaps no better places to begin from than the Court of the Popes or the White House of US Presidents.

Both these institutions possess and are characterised by the rivalries between a tight-knit groups that tend to exist in three overlapping affinities. First, there are the personal friends and official ‘body servants’ of the ‘sovereign’ or ‘president ‘; secondly, the professional household officials including security staff who set the limits of the word wherein the ‘sovereign’ or ‘president’ lives; thirdly, the courtiers and ministers who by virtue of status or office also have ready access to the ‘sovereign’ or ‘president’. In differing societies the membership of any particular group may change. For example the fear of petticoat government haunted the absolutist monarchies of the ageing Bourbon kings,Louis XIV and later Louis XV;  whereas women play almost no role in the papal curia. High status may be defined in a multitude of differing ways –  as the history of US Presidents from Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama demonstrates. High society and its appalled denizens always end by accommodating and assimilating the rough edge of popular tastes. The federalist establishment in DC survived the shock of Andrew Jackson’s supporters running riot at the first elected Democrat’s Presidential inauguration  – dancing on the French furniture; smashing the china of Dolly Madison; pulling down the fancy drapes and dressing up in them; swilling neat bourbon whilst two-stepping down the halls; and vomiting in gardens of the White House.

These three elements of access would have been as familiar to a Tudor King or Queen as to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette some two hundred years later. These conduits of power similarly existed in the Russian Empire of Nicholas II; the tyranny of Stalin; the fascist government of Mussolini; the Nazi government of Hitler and the New Deal Democracy of FDR’s Hyde Park. They as easily describe the power structures of the Shah of Persia; the government of Saddam Hussein; and those of the House of Saud. For at the end of the day all absolutist regimes –  royal, republican, military or revolutionary – rely on the interface between these three constant elements of political power.

Umbralucum in the arms of the Camerlengo

Umbralacum in the arms of the Camerlengo. Note the cardinal’s hat beneath the umbrella together with the double cross of a papal legate.

The Papacy is essentially absolute monarchy tempered by a medieval bureaucracy. The word ‘curia’ literally means ‘court’. It is borrowed from the Imperial households of the Emperors of both Rome and Constantinople.  It once described any single meeting room where the Senate or Dictators met in public. Later practice was for all public meetings or audiences to take place in basilicas – open buildings –  where justice was dispensed and which, unlike ritual Temples, had plenty of natural light.

The papacy used the term ‘curia’ to describe its presiding public jurisdiction.  all these public assemblies still took place in basilicas but these now doubled as churches and halls of audience and therefore the public face of the pope came to combine both the religious and the secular. Later, after Charlemagne –  the Holy Roman Emperors self-consciously modelled themselves on papal practice. The HRE too was an elective monarchy which claimed, like Constantine, both a secular and an ecclesiastical jurisdiction. The Holy Roman Emperor and the pope were destined to struggle, on and off, for almost a thousand years over the limits and extents of their respective Imperium.

 A Papal tiara from 1805These Emperors, also alike the popes presided from a ‘curia’. Later the kingdoms of Europe which were carved from Charlemagne’s great Empire also presided in a curia or court on the same legal basis. The term ‘court’ described the place of judgement where the monarch presided and where his words were writ as law. In England, for example, the legal term ‘court’ is borrowed by the courts of justice and by the courts of finance (i.e.the treasury or courts of exchequer)  precisely because within them monarchical jurisdiction is exercised by the vice-regal officers of judge and of recorder.These are ‘courts’ as a permanently delegated royal jurisdiction where the crown presides through the persons of its deputies. Royal justice and royal taxations are managed on the sovereign’s behalf by delegation to these places. The ‘sovereign’s  court’ once was the only legal forum where justice might be dispensed or where collected ‘tribute’ (taxes) might be accounted. The ‘curia regis’ – court of the king – was the executive institution personal government and it self-consciously borrowed its practices; rituals; and jurisdictions from the Caesars of Imperial Rome and later from the Emperors of Byzantium.

So in these most modern of times when it seems any image from anywhere in the world may uploaded through the ether in seconds; where twitter learned before the crowds in St Peter’s  -‘habemus papam Franciscum’; it should be remembered that in order to understand the order of business and its execution in Rome you need to think in terms of monarchy and in terms of royal households as they were arranged throughout Europe by the late Renaissance.

And there you have the keys to understanding the kingdom on earth of the Popes is that it is a monarchy which governs like all monarchs through its royal household. And when the time comes for us to understand the intentions of this new successor of peter behind the pastoral mood music it is the arrangement of his household orchestra and the Pope’s personal edicts  issued as ‘motu proprio‘ – literally one’s own initiative – which will compose the symphony of  Pope Francis.

Coat of Arms of Pope Francis

Coat of Arms of Pope Francis

I suspect this pope will surprise in many ways. This is a doctrinally conservative Jesuit. Imbued with the spirit of Loyola and Xavier I doubt he will stand any nonsense; most like the Jesuits he will not stand upon ceremony rather upon actions and words. Most like the Jesuits he will seek new ways to accommodate the demands of the times without compromising the old truths. We may see women formally admitted to admitted to the suborders of Lector and Acolyte; these suborders may be composed into the college of cardinals as once were the order of sub-deacons of the Roman Church –  who were part of the sacred college until 1969.

If this is so then there will most certainly be women participating in the next conclave. It may not overturn the priesthood but goodness it would elevate women back into the position they held in the Gospel as the first heralds of the Resurrection. And the church Pope Francis leaves may have a more pastoral character; its head may appear more synodical; its heart more collegial;  but it may also have a more papal Nature.

The pope’s new coat of arms is here to the left. Like Benedict XVI pope Francis has chosen a mitre rather than the triple tiara normally used in papal coats of arms. His mitre however is in white and gold the traditional colours reserved to popes. The central motif of the name of Jesus surmounted with a cross is from the Jesuit coat of arms. The star represents the Virgin Mary as the singular Morning Star – one of her titles from the Litany of the Loretto. The image that looks like grapes is actually that of a nard flower gone to seed. It represents St. Joseph selected to be the husband of Mary because his staff according to pious legend was the only one that flowered when the temple priests were seeking a worthy mate for her. St. Joseph is often painted with a branch of spikenard in his hand.

The pope quoted matthew in his first public homily in the Mass in the sistine Chapel after his election. Now his motto, “miserando atque eligendo (mercifully and choosing).

The phrase is odd as it comes from a sermon by the English monk, the Venerable St. Bede, who lived in the seventh century. St. Bede was preaching in a sermon in a sermon on the true meaning of following Christ & spoke about what motivated Jesus to call a tax collector to serve as his disciple. The incident is told in Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 9). Matthew is the tax collector in question. The tone of this section is actually deeply felt and personal. Bede construes from Matthew’s being called by Jesus that the tax collector was chosen by Jesus for two distinct motivations:

Jesus, therefore, saw the publican, and because he (Jesus) saw that by having mercy and by choosing said to him, “Follow me.”

From this we are to take that Pope Francis was chosen, like Matthew, not because he was worthy but, as Bede explains, chosen rather by the mercy of Jesus which made him worthy of being chosen; and in the choosing of Matthew ( and by extension Pope Francis) he is made worthy by Jesus’ deliberate choice. In this there are echoes of ‘Tu est Petrus….’ . It is the one of the Apostles who denied Christ; the one who felt always the unworthiest because if this failure;  who is chosen by Jesus to arbitrate and judge. Peter is made worthy by God’s grace  – for he who knows best his unfitness to judge will thus judge most true and most kind.



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