Saturday, April 02, 2005

What happens when a pope dies: The Particular and General Congregations (part 2)

With the announcement of the pope's death, the Church enters into what is called an interregnum--a period of time "in between reigns." During the interregnum, power passes not to the cardinal secretary of state (in this case Angelo Cardinal Sodano) or any other senior official, but to the cardinal chamberlain (Cardinal Somalo of Spain). Upon the death of the pope, the cardinal chamberlain assumes great responsibility and becomes a focal point as the Church prepares for the funeral and the conclave (the election of the new pope).

Most functions of the Curia, all but the most ordinary business of the Holy See, come to a stop. Also, the highest office holders in the Curia, such as the cardinals who are prefects of Congregations and presidents of Pontifical Councils and Commissions, all lose their offices. Moreover, those persons holding titles or honors bestowed for the duration of the pope's lifetime lose them. Their hope is that the successor to the See of Peter will rename them.

This period of the interregnum is also known as the "vacant See" (sede vacante). Preparations usually occur at this point. Even before the arrival of all of the cardinals from around the world, the Particular Congregation is formed, made up of four cardinals already present, including the cardinal chamberlain. This body will take care of the less important matters concerning the funeral and conclave preparations.

As soon as all the cardinals have arrived and are present at the Vatican, a General Congregation, usually headed by the dean of the College of Cardinals (in this case Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger), is held to deal with weightier matters concerning the preparations for the funeral and conclave. For instance, they will fix the date, time, and ceremonials of the funeral of the deceased pope, set the norms for the novendiales (the official nine days of mourning), form the commissions for services during the conclave, and the manner of the destruction of the dead pope's ring--the Fisherman's Ring (the great seal of the office of the pope).

Then the late pontiff's secretary is interviewed (in this case Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz) and the pope's Last Testament opened and reviewed. The Cardinals have an obligation to carry through with the last wishes of the pope as best they can.

[Stay tuned for part 3: on the papal ring]

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