Also known as the Interregnum

Actually, there is a somewhat formal process when the Pope has been called to the great beyond. Most of the responsibilities fall on the person who has been designated as the Pope’s “camerlengo”, a sort of chief of staff or aide de camp who will get all of the affairs in order.

Is He Dead Yet?

That would probably be a good thing to know. Tradition has it that when the time comes, the camerlengo is the one that has to certify the Pope’s death. In the days of old, this was done by calling out the Pope’s baptized name three times and asking him if he is dead. If there is no response, his holiness is tapped on the forehead with a little silver hammer. If that doesn’t cause him to stir, the camerlengo then declares him dead.

I’m guessing that in today’s world and with the advent of modern medicine and equipment, something a little more scientific might take place. But then again, we are talking about the Catholic Church. After all, who can say for sure what goes on behind closed doors?

Anyway, after that, the camerlengo informs the vicar of Rome who then goes and tells the people that the Pope has been called to greener pastures. The camerlengo then locks and seals the papal apartment, This is done in order to prevent any unscrupulous people from getting their hands on the Pope’s personal papers. The Fisherman’s ring that bears the seal of the Pope is also broken and will later be buried with him. This is done to prevent any forgery that might take place on documents that bear the seal of the Pope after his death.

The cardinals that are on hand then determine, in accordance with the Pope’s wishes, how the body will be displayed to the mourning public and to make any other funeral arrangements that need to be made. The Pope will be buried anywhere from four to six days after his death.

Oh, another thing. There is no autopsy performed on the Pope. I don’t know why that is but over the years, this had led to many a conspiracy theory and speculation when a Pope dies sooner than most folks thought he should have.

Who’s In Charge Here?

Good question. All of the cardinals in the Roman curia that are in charge of departments within the Vatican are suddenly out of job when the Pope dies. It’s not like they have to go pounding the pavement or scouring the want ads but it is more of a precaution to ensure that they don’t decide any important matters until the next Pope is chosen. Some folks manage to keep their job though. These mainly have to do with confessional matters that would normally be brought before the Holy See. You see, the theory behind that is that the door to forgiveness should always remain open.

Once again, the camerlengo takes center stage.

Even while the Pope is alive, the camerlengo has the authority to speak for the Pope when he is out of Rome. Even though the College of Cardinals are the ones technically running the show, the camerlengo is the one calling the shots. During that time, their powers are limited. No monkeying around with the rules governing a papal election, no appointing of new cardinals and no making of decisions that would normally be made by the incoming Pope.

His most important duty though is the ordering and organizing of the conclave. That’s when the cardinals and the bishops are called to Rome in order to choose a new Pope.

And that’s where the real fun begins


All this reminds me of a saying in Italian, which I came across in my futile study of the language - Morto un papa, se ne fa un altro. Call that phrase an eight-word summary of the above post.

Literally, it means "when one pope is dead, they make another one"; but it is a proverb (apparently) and expresses something like "nobody is indispensable" or "everyone is expendable," that idea. Think Le roi est mort, vive le roi.

In keeping with the above theme: the Italians also have a saying ogni morte di papa (lit. "every death of a pope", every time a pope dies), meaning "once in a blue moon," "on rare occasion." It strikes me as just a bit morbid, but now that I think of it, so is "The king is dead, long live the king"....

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