That ancient phrase in Latin, meaning literally “The Chair is empty”, describes the present phase of the Church’s life. The Chair of Peter is empty and we await another man to step into the “Shoes of the Fisherman” as a movie of many years ago had it. The visual symbol of this can be found on the home page of the Vatican website which displays not the Papal Tiara and crossed keys but an umbrella over the keys: the umbraculum that signifies the temporal governance of the Church.
Of course in a Church whose life has spanned two millennia, and with the Roman Papacy being the world’s oldest continuing governing institution it is hardly unprecedented. Some sede vacante periods have lasted barely over a day (like 1939 and 2005) and others have gone on for years at a stretch. For about a thousand years the procedure of a Papal Election has followed the dramatic and mysterious enclosure of the Cardinals into a “conclave” (literally “with a key”) in which they are physically and spiritually withdrawn from the world.
Some of these conclaves have passed peacefully and serenely, others the opposite.
As late as August 1903, the Conclave that followed the death of Pope Leo XIII experienced an intervention from the outside world. At a moment when it seemed that a particular Cardinal was about to reach the two-thirds plus one majority needed for election, the Cardinal Archbishop of Cracow (a predecessor of a later holder of that See that would become Pope John Paul II in 1978) rose and announced in the Sistine Chapel that his temporal Sovereign, the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph “vetoed” that Cardinal on the grounds of a presumed right of Catholic Monarchs to have a say in the election of a Supreme Pontiff. The Cardinals were stunned, and then angry, denounced the whole idea of a secular ruler’s “veto” then proceeded to elect someone else and gave us Pope Saint Pius X instead.
The Papacy existed when there Emperors of Rome sacrificing in Forum, when orators spoke in the Senate House before the statue of Romulus and Remus and the She-Wolf; and there will be a Papacy when the Lord comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
At times it seemed as if the enemies of the Church almost succeeded in ending the Chair of Peter.
In 1799, the French Revolutionary authorities “forbade” the election of a new Pope. The Cardinals made their way to an island in the Venetian Lagoon and elected Pius VII. That Pope would later both crown Napoleon Bonaparte as Emperor of the French in 1804, and within ten years be his prisoner in France. Later that same Pope would offer kindly and comfortable refuge to Napoleon’s mother and brother in Rome after the French Empire went down in utter defeat, and the exiled Emperor would die a lonely death professing “the Holy Roman and Apostolic Faith in which I was born”.
In 1944 when it seemed quite possible that Hitler would order his troops occupying Rome to enter the Vatican and seize Pope Pius XII that Pope secretly gathered the Cardinals present in Rome and made them promise that if he were taken prisoner by the forces of the Third Reich they were to consider him as dead and to secretly proceed to a safe place to the election of a new Pope.
As they say, we’ve had our “ups and downs.”
This time we might say we are, if we ever are, in “uncharted waters” however.
The surprise voluntary renunciation of the Papacy by Benedict XVI announced on February 11 of this year, both the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes and Vatican City’s “national holiday” was, to use a modern colloquialism, a “game changer”. Never before had a Pope voluntarily and freely stepped down from the Chair of Peter solely on the basis of increasing age and fatigue. Popes had been “pushed” into resignation by outside pressure of various types, and one, Celestine V in 1294, abdicated after only a few months in the Papacy due to his unsuitability as a former monk and hermit to hold the office effectively. No one ever would have thought of Benedict XVI as “incapable” or “unsuitable” and no exterior force or pressure was brought to bear on him.
We enter this Sede Vacante with a living “Pope Emeritus” and without the usual, and so often moving, experience of a Papal death-watch, decease, and solemn ritual of burial.
The College of Cardinals must feel their way in a new situation and determine the date of the Conclave with 115 electors drawn from all over the world.
However, unlike 2005, when hardly any had been in Conclave before (the last one being 27 years before) they are probably able to focus in on issues and challenges more quickly.
This time as well, there are no real “Catholic monarchs” in the old sense to “cast a veto”; but there is the new pressure of the 24/7 news cycle, social media, the “blogosphere”; and the “talking society” of instant commentary and opinion. The Cardinals bind themselves by solemn oaths to be silent about all the details of the Election. This is contrary to the “spirit of the age” as well as the natural tendency of men ( even Cardinals) in public life in this media age to be interviewed and to make friends with the media. Also, do not be scandalized that the basic human tendency to self-promotion is not automatically removed by Sacred Orders, or even the “Red Hat.” The tendency to be a “blabbermouth” is not limited to Ralph Kramden’s mother-in-law in the Honeymooners.
Most of us in the clergy (including your writer), in the words of a doctor I knew, “make our living by talking.”
Now is the time for prayerful words, judicious enquiry, and discrete silence in the days to come.
March 6, 2013.