Sedis vacancy

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Coats of arms when the Apostolic See is vacant
Euro coin issued by the Vatican in 2005 after the death of John Paul II ( reverse side of a two euro coin) with the coat of arms of Cardinal Chamberlain Eduardo Martínez Somalo

Sedisvakanz ( Latin sedis vacantia: vacantia , Middle Latin , “being free, emptiness”; sedis is genitive to sedes “chair”, actually “vacancy of the chair”, mostly rendered as “empty chair”) “denotes the time and state of the completion of the papal or episcopal or quasi-episcopal see. ”The term vacantia sedis is used in specialist Latin literature. It does not appear in the Corpus Iuris Canonici (CIC), which defines this state; there the time and circumstances of the sedis vacancy are described with the expression sede vacante (“while the seat is free”).

With the empty, or unoccupied chair is the orphan Kathedra , the chair of a bishop, in the case of the Pope the Chair of the Bishop of Rome , meant. This expresses that this office is vacant because the office holder has left the office but no successor has yet been introduced.

Vacancy of the Holy See

The vacancy of the Holy See begins with the end of the Pope's pontificate, usually death or resignation. The historically much more common case is the sedis vacancy after the death of the Pope. The voluntary resignation from office has only occurred twice in the history of the Catholic Church, in 1294 and 2013.

During the last months of the pontificate of John Paul II , the term “de facto sedis vacancy” was coined. What is meant by this is that the Pope is alive, but cannot fulfill his tasks for health reasons. Although the apparatus of the Roman Curia can take over a large part of the papal tasks, there are acts such as B. the appointment of bishops and the creation of cardinals , which are mandatory and without exception reserved for the Pope.

In the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis in 1996 , Pope John Paul II revised the regulations pertaining to the Sedis vacancy and largely confirmed the existing rules.

Since the Second Vatican Council in particular , representatives of sedis vacantism (the extraordinary sedis vacancy) have been accusing the papal chair of being unlawfully occupied. The possibility of the extraordinary sedis vacancy is excluded in the Catholic teaching tradition due to the promise of Christ: "And the gates of the underworld will not overtake them [the Church]" ( Mt 16:18  EU ).

In particular between the 10th and 15th centuries, two or more men fought over the chair of Peter several times, and it was only afterwards that it was determined whether a pontificate existed or whether the chair of Peter was at a certain point in time by an antipope occupied, but actually vacant.

Sedis vacancy due to the death of the Pope

Despite the prominence of the Pope and the far-reaching consequences of his death, there is no pathological examination or even an autopsy of the deceased Pope. Rather, the death of the Pope is officially determined by the Camerlengo , the papal chamberlain. In the past, the so-called “hammer question” was asked in which the camerlengo tapped the deceased Pope three times on the forehead with a ceremonial hammer made of silver and ebony, called him by his baptismal name and asked if he was sleeping. This is no longer mentioned in Universi Dominici Gregis , which is why the ritual can be considered obsolete . When Pope John Paul II died on April 2, 2005, several live reports from St. Peter's Square claimed otherwise, although there was much to suggest that the respective reporters simply resorted to well-known facts in the absence of up-to-date detailed information. In press reports, for which it was possible to research more carefully, it is expressly stated that the hammer question did not take place in the traditional form.

Notifying the public

It is the duty of the cardinal vicar for the Diocese of Rome to notify the Roman people of the death of their bishop, and the duty of the cardinal dean to do the same with diplomats accredited to the Holy See. The death of Pope John Paul II was first announced by the Vatican via email and it quickly spread around the world. This procedure does not contradict the rules of the Constitution Universi Dominici gregis , as it does not contain any information about a prescribed form of death notification.

Burial of the Pope

After the death of the Pope, the funeral ceremonies for the Pope take place over a period of nine days, whereby the actual burial, traditionally in the crypt of St. Peter's Basilica , does not take place before the fourth and not after the sixth day after the death of the Pope.

The private apartments of the late Pope be sealed by the Camerlengo, his personal estate, if he is a testament created, nominated by him executor transferred. The latter is not responsible to the College of Cardinals, but solely and exclusively to the new Pope.

Destruction of the fishing ring and seals

After the official death certificate has been issued by the Chancellor of the Apostolic Chamber , the papal seals , especially the fisherman's ring , are broken in the presence of the first General Congregation of the cardinals present up to this point .

Sedis vacancy through the resignation of the Pope

The resignation from office is in Can. 332 § 2 of the Codex Iuris Canonici expressly mentioned and regulated, but has only occurred very rarely in the history of the papacy. A Pope can resign from his office at any time, provided that this is done voluntarily and is sufficiently publicized. The renunciation does not require the acceptance of any church office and therefore cannot be prevented or postponed. In this respect, the diocese of Rome , whose bishop is the Pope, differs from the other dioceses: In this sense, there is no so-called old bishop who offers the pope his resignation when he reaches the age of 75. It is generally assumed that the only truly voluntary resignation of a Pope before the resignation of Benedict XVI. in 2013 it was that of Celestine V on December 13, 1294 (see decretals VI.1.7.1 Quoniam aliqui curiosi).

After the decision of Benedict XVI. Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said that the fishing ring would be destroyed as planned when the Pope died. The Cardinal Chamberlain will not smash the ring, but break it to invalidate the seal. Ultimately, the ring was devalued by an engraving through the ring plate.

Legal consequences

The Pope has largely unrestricted authority both as head of the Catholic Church and as head of state of the State of Vatican City . In order to ensure on the one hand that the business of the Holy See and the Vatican does not come to a complete standstill, and on the other hand to prevent a power vacuum or even power intrigues during the vacancy, the rights, duties and powers of the various offices, persons and institutions of the Vatican and the Holy See in Universi Dominici Gregis (UDG) precisely regulated. The principle is that the necessary functions of the papal office are transferred to the college of cardinals and are exercised jointly by the college until the election of the new pope. A symbol of this principle is that the fisherman's ring , the signet ring of the deceased Pope, should be broken into as many parts as there are cardinals present, which is no longer practical in view of the high number of cardinals. However, there are extensive restrictions, in which the principle also applies that any measure taken by the College of Cardinals, if it were reserved for the Pope during a pontificate , is subject to the approval of the new Pope. The rules of the conclave are completely inviolable .


According to Chapter I No. 1 Universi Dominici Gregis, the College of Cardinals has "no authority or jurisdiction with regard to questions to which the Pope is entitled during his lifetime or during the exercise of his duties". Any such action which the College of Cardinals believes it ought to take outside the established framework is invalid and void. The Supreme Court of the Apostolic Signature and the Court of Justice of the Roman Rota continue their ordinary business.


The leadership of the Catholic Church is taken over by the College of Cardinals , represented for the “day-to-day business” by the Camerlengo and three cardinals as assistants, who are changed by lot every three days , “but only for the settlement of ordinary affairs or for those questions that cannot be delayed , as well as for the preparation of what is necessary for the election of the new Pope ”. The UDG thus contains an opening clause which enables the College of Cardinals to determine whether a measure cannot be postponed and to take this already during the vacancy, provided that this measure does not require the highest authority of the Pope (in particular, the College of Cardinals cannot appoint new cardinals or remove old ones) .

Various offices of the curia continued

With the death or resignation of the Pope, all heads of the dicasteries of the Roman Curia lose their office. This applies in particular to the Cardinal Secretary of State and the Cardinal Prefects . The camerlengo and the major penitentiary remain in office, however, and they are responsible to the college of cardinals for the performance of their ordinary duties during the vacancy . In addition, the Cardinal Vicar of the Diocese of Rome , the Cardinal Archpriest of the Vatican Basilica and the Vicar General for the Vatican City , as well as the Almsman of His Holiness , the substitute for the State Secretariat and the Secretary for Relations with States , remain in office . The offices of the diplomatic representatives of the Holy See (e.g. the nuncios ) remain unaffected.


The duration of the sedis vacancy depends almost exclusively on how long it takes the cardinals to elect a new pope in the conclave . However, the UDG speaks of the deadlines in three stages:

In the event of the Pope's death, the first stage is his burial . It should not take place before the fourth and not after the sixth day of the Sedis vacancy (No. 13b UDG).

The second stage extends to the beginning of the conclave. Cardinals must wait 15 full days after the end of the pontificate before the conclave can begin. This waiting time was introduced once in order to enable all cardinals to travel to the conclave, which in the past was sometimes quite arduous and lengthy. In the meantime, however, it is usually possible for the cardinals to be present for the Pope's funeral between the fourth and sixth day of the vacancy, so that the UDG's option of extending the waiting period to the twentieth day is rarely used got to. However, the conclave must begin on the twentieth day at the latest (No. 37 UDG). After the decree of the Motu Proprio Normas nonnullas by Benedict XVI. , which has reformed No. 37 UDG, it is now possible under canon law that the College of Cardinals can bring forward the election if it is certain that all cardinals entitled to vote are present. This new regulation was used after Benedict's resignation; the election began on the 12th day after the sedis vacancy occurred.

The third stage extends from the beginning of the conclave to the election of the Pope. The “first round” of voting lasts three days. If voting begins in the afternoon of the first day, there will only be one ballot on that day. On the following days there will be two ballots in the morning and two in the afternoon. If no agreement has been reached on a candidate, a break of no more than one day is taken for reflection and prayer. Then another seven ballots are held (over a period of two days), after which, if they remain inconclusive, another pause of no more than one day is made. This procedure is repeated one more time. Until a change by Pope Benedict XVI. in 2007, the cardinals were able to decide with an absolute majority that either an absolute majority of the votes was sufficient for the election (instead of the previous two-thirds majority ) or that a runoff between the two leading candidates took place. At the moment, however, a two-thirds majority is still necessary in future papal elections even after more than 33 ballots. A runoff election is also no longer permitted.

The sedis vacancy in March 2013 lasted from Benedict XVI's resignation. 13 days until the election of Francis . The longest sedis vacancy in history lasted almost three years after the cardinals, after the death of Clement IV on November 29, 1268, until the election of Gregory X on September 1, 1271, could not agree on a candidate, since the cardinals were in one an imperial and a French camp were divided. On the advice of Saint Bonaventure of Bagnoregio , after two years of vacancy, the Viterbo authorities hermetically sealed the papal palace, tore down the roof and gave the cardinals water and bread to speed up the electoral process. However, the cardinals remained firm and managed to have the ban lifted, and it took another year to reach agreement on Tebaldo Visconti , the archdeacon of Liege , who was not even a priest at the time of his election .


  • The coat of arms of the Sedisvakanz is divided into two parts: above the crossed St. Peter's keys and above them, instead of the tiara, a canopy called Padiglione (also ombrellino , officially Latin: umbraculum ) with red and yellow stripes, the lower part shows the personal coat of arms of the Cardinal Chamberlain (Camerlengo) It replaces the papal coat of arms for the duration of the Sedis vacancy (for example on the title page of the Osservatore Romano ).
  • With the beginning of the Sedisvakanz, the Cardinal Chamberlain arranges for a special coin to be minted, which shows the coat of arms of the Sedisvakanz with the inscription Sede vacante on the obverse , a dove , the symbol of the Holy Spirit , with the inscription Veni Sancte Spiritus (Come, Holy Spirit).
  • In 2005, a euro coin rate was struck, which bore the coat of arms of the Sedisvakanz on the national side. These coins are valid throughout the euro area. In future, the latter will no longer be allowed due to a change in the agreement. During the Sedis vacancy in 2013 there was only one new 2 euro commemorative coin. This will also be the case with future vacancies.

Vacancy of the Episcopal See

The vacancy of the episcopal see is canonical in cann. 416-430 CIC 1983 regulated. A vacancy occurs (can. 416):

  • Death of the incumbent;
  • the Pope's acceptance of his resignation from office;
  • Transfer;
  • Impeachment or dismissal.

In these cases there is no vacancy if a bishop's coadjutor has been appointed.

When the vacancy occurs, vicars general or episcopal vicars lose their offices (c. 481 § 1), unless it is an auxiliary bishop and nothing else is regulated (c. 409 § 2). The council of priests ceases to exist (c. 501 § 2).

If the Holy See has not made provision by appointing an Apostolic Administrator , c. 419, until a diocesan administrator is elected, the leadership of the diocese is transferred to the senior auxiliary bishop or, if there is none, to the college of consultors (in the German-speaking area: the cathedral chapter ).

The cathedral chapter has to elect a diocesan administrator within eight days of becoming aware of the vacancy (c. 421 § 1), after this period the right of appointment is transferred to the metropolitan (c. 421 § 2).

Only a priest who is at least 35 years of age, qualified and not named or elected as a candidate for bishopric may be elected as diocesan administrator (c. 425). The administrator is not allowed to make fundamental decisions. The rule “ Sede vacante nihil innoveturapplies (nothing may be changed while the bishop's chair is empty) (c. 428 § 1). The diocesan administrator may not appoint a pastor unless the diocese has been vacant for more than a year (c. 525 no. 2). The other rights and duties of the diocesan administrator are the same as those of the diocesan bishop. The sedis vacancy ends when the diocese is taken over by a new bishop (c. 430 § 1).




  • John Paul II PP: Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis 1996.
  • John Paul II PP: Codex iuris canonici , 1983. online

Secondary literature:

  • Frederic J. Baumgartner: Behind Locked Doors. A History of the Papal Elections. Palgrave Macmillan, New York NY et al. 2003, ISBN 0-312-29463-8 .
  • Heiner Boberski : The next Pope. The mysterious world of the conclave. 2nd, updated and expanded edition. Müller, Salzburg et al. 2001, ISBN 3-7013-1041-6 .
  • Louis Carlen: The papal election in canon law. In: Louis Carlen: Law, History and Symbol. Essays and reviews. Weidmann, Hildesheim 2002, ISBN 3-615-00243-1 , pp. 209-211.
  • Hans-Joachim Fischer: The successor. From the time between the popes. Herder, Freiburg (Breisgau) et al. 1997, ISBN 3-451-26190-1 .
  • Markus Graulich : The Vacancy of the Apostolic See and the Election of the Bishop of Rome - Two Legal Institutes in Development. In: Archives for Catholic Church Law . (AfkKR). Vol. 174, Issue 1, 2005, pp. 75-95.
  • Alberto Melloni: The Conclave. The election of the Pope, past and present. Herder, Freiburg (Breisgau) et al. 2002, ISBN 3-451-27850-2 .


In the 1968 film In the Shoes of the Fisherman by Michael Anderson , based on the novel The Shoes of the Fisherman by Morris L. West , the conclave of the fictional Russian Pope Kiril Lakota is vividly portrayed. With the election of an Eastern European just ten years later, the film turned out to be prophetic.

The two-part Italian television drama Papa Luciani - Il sorriso di Dio from 2006, which shows the life of Pope John Paul I , takes up the film “In the fisherman's shoes” with the depiction of the “simple shepherd in the Lord's vineyard” " on; the cinematic representation of the sedis vacancy and the conclave are strikingly similar in both films.

Web links

Wiktionary: Sedisvakanz  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Sedisvakanz  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Michael Buchberger and others, Lexicon for Theology and Church , Freiburg im Breisgau 1986. Volume 9, column 562
  2. The amen and a late bell
  3. Father Lombardi: Pope remains His Holiness Benedict XVI. Vatican Radio, February 26, 2013, accessed February 26, 2013
  4. ^ Annette Langer and Rainer Leurs: Beginning of the Sedisvakanz. God without a Pope. Spiegel Online , February 28, 2013, accessed March 1, 2013 .
  5. Vatican: Fisherman's Ring from Benedict XVI. was canceled , , March 6, 2013, last accessed on August 29, 2019