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Plinio Lepri/AP
Sede Vacante

Glossary: Some of the terms you'll hear during the Papal election

Because of the Ingravescentem aetatem, not all of the College of Cardinals get to fill the Petrine ministry. Didn’t you know?

THE UNEXPECTED RESIGNATION of Pope Benedict XVI – an event without precedent in modern history – means the world will be exposed to a larger-than-expected amount of canonical recitation in the coming weeks.

To help readers through the minefield of church language, we’ve put together this quick glossary of some of the more unusual terms you may hear.

Bishop of Rome – The first of the pope’s actual titles. St Peter, the ‘prince’ of Jesus’ apostles, is thought to have travelled to Rome after the death of Jesus and turned that city into the head of the church. He became the Bishop of Rome and the first Pope – giving rise to the notion of the Catholic Church being the Roman Catholic Church.

Petrine ministry – The informally official title given to the actual task of the Pope: keeping up the ministry of St Peter. This is because Peter was said to have been given the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. These overlapping keys are regularly seen on Catholic insignia.

Holy See – The official name given to the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church. This is separate from Vatican City, which is a separate sovereign state but which submits its entire governance to the Holy See itself, which also enjoys international recognition as a separate sovereign entity. It is the Holy See which appoints ambassadors (or in church language, a ‘Papal nuncio’) to other countries, and ambassadors are appointed to the Holy See rather than the Vatican. Therefore it is the Holy See which is recognised by the UN rather than the Vatican. It is possible in this sense to think of the Vatican as the capital city of the Holy See.

Sede vacante - The formal title (from the Latin, literally meaning ‘vacant seat’) for the period in which the Papacy is vacant. The next period of sede vacante begins at 8pm Roman time on February 28. During this period, the powers of the papacy are transferred to the College of Cardinals – though a constitution written by John Paul II dictates that the powers are massively weakened during such times – the idea being that the cardinals can exercise only enough power to ensure the continued operation of church organs, but not enough power to make executive decisions.

Universi Dominici Gregis - The name of the document written by John Paul II. It acts as a sort of constitution and outlines the procedures to be followed in the appointment of a new pope.

Camerlengo – A Cardinal who acts as the administrator of the property and finances of the Holy See. During a sede vacante, the Camerlengo acts as the acting head of state of Vatican City (while the College of Cardinals accepts the power of the Holy See). Their best-known role is to verify the death of a pope by tapping them on the forehead three times with a silver hammer and asking them if they are merely sleeping.

Ring of the Fisherman – A ring worn by the pope and used to seal official documents issued in his name. This is ceremonially cut open by the Camerlengo in cases where the previous pope has died (or, in this case, resigned), to ensure that it cannot be used to issue forged documents.

College of Cardinals – The full group of Catholic cardinals.  Cardinals occupy the rank above a bishop in Church hierarchy. If one thinks of the pope as being a ‘king’, a cardinal is a ‘prince’.

Sistine Chapel – The venue for meetings of the College of Cardinals. Usually known because of Michaelangelo’s legendary work painting its ceiling.

Conclave – The meeting held by the College of Cardinals where they are locked away, literally, to decide who should be the next pope. This ends with the emission of white smoke from the chapel of the Sistine Chapel, where they vote: the ballot papers are burned to produce white smoke, signalling an affirmative decision to pick a new pope.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone is the current Camerlengo, and will be the acting head of state of the Vatican City when Pope Benedict XVI steps down. (AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito)

Cardinal deacon – Unusually, though they are the lowest-ranking of the cardinals, it is the cardinal deacons who have the main role in arranging the mechanics of a papal election. Cardinal deacons assume the rank of cardinal by virtue of holding offices in certain designated churches in Rome. The most senior cardinal deacon – the one who has held their job the longest – is the Cardinal Protodeacon, the man given the honour of announcing the new pope’s election and who is also responsible for formally presenting the pope with his pallium (cloak) and the papal tiara, an official ‘crown’ which the last three popes have opted against receiving.

Ingravescentem aetatem - A publication written by the former Pope Paul VI which governs the maximum age of a papal elector. It dictates that at the age of 80, a cardinal loses their right to elect a pope, and also to be a member of a department of the Roman Curia.

Habemus papam – The informal title for the announcement made when the identify of the new Pope is announced. This announcement, carried out by the Cardinal Protodeacon, is made from the steps of…

St Peter’s Basilica – …the main cathedral within the Vatican, and the site of all of its major events. It is not officially the seat of the Bishop of Rome – that is actually a separate Archbasilica outside the territory of the Vatican – but all major Catholic events, such as the inaugurations of new Popes and the funerals of previous ones, are held there. It is thought that the remains of St Peter himself are buried in the crypt of the basilica; deceased pontiffs are now also buried there.

Roman Curia – The administrative arm of the Holy See. It can be thought of as the equivalent to a government: the Roman Curia is to the Holy See as the Irish Government is to Ireland.

Papal states – The collection of small areas, now part of modern-day Italy, which used to come under the direct political control of the Pope. Italy was unified as a single nation in 1870, with Rome as its capital, thereby stripping the Pope of any land to govern – effectively a Head of State (of the Holy See) without any territory (except St Peter’s Basilica or the apostolic palace) to govern. After this, various Popes considered themselves ‘Prisoners in the Vatican’, and refused to leave the basilica or the palace for fear that the territory would be taken over by the Italian military. This was brought to an end by the…

Lateran Treaty – A deal signed between Benito Mussolini’s Italy and the Holy See of Pope Pius XI. This formally created the Vatican City as a separate state to Italy and entrenched the ability of the Pope to leave the Vatican’s territory without the fear of having it subsumed into Italy in his absence.

Urbi et Orbi – A phrase meaning ‘To the city and to the world’, with Rome being the ‘city’ in this case. This is the name given to speeches made by the Pope to the world’s Catholics, traditionally at Christmas and Easter. An Urbi et Orbi message is also made on the occasion of a new pope’s election.

Read: Pope Benedict resigns, cites ‘advanced age’ and deteriorating health

Plus: Reactions from Irish primates Diarmuid Martin and Seán Brady

Reaction: Incredulity, shock and humility – The world reacts to Pope Benedict’s resignation

Explainers: Do popes resign? and How is a new Pope chosen?

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