As the Church and the world make final preparations for the March 12 opening of the Conclave to elect the next Bishop of Rome, there are a number of Latin words and phrases that we will be hearing. Remember, Latin is still the official language of the Roman Catholic Church, and all official pronouncements are given first in this ancient language. So to help us prepare for the days ahead, here are some of the most important Latin words and phrases to know.
Sede Vacante – “Vacant See” – This phrase refers to the time following the death or resignation of a Pope before the election of his successor. The Holy See, referenced in this phrase, is an official term for the organizational structure of the Vatican or the administrative offices of the Pope and his advisors. During sede vacante, the College of Cardinals serve as the chief administrators of the Church, but their function and purpose is to prepare for and conduct the election for a new Pope – no other administrative functions take place. The Latin origin of this phrase makes reference to the Chair – or sede – of St. Peter (celebrated on February 22). In ancient times, a chair was the symbol of a leader’s teaching authority, and so the Chair of St. Peter is a symbol of the teaching authority given to him by Christ and thus to each of his successors as Bishop of Rome.
Interregnum – “Between reigns” – Used somewhat interchangeably with Sede Vacante, this word designates the time between the death or resignation of one Pope and the election of a new Pope.
Extra Omnes – “Everyone out” – During the Conclave to elect a new pope (see below for more on the meaning of conclave), only the Cardinals eligible to vote in the election and a very few support staff are allowed to be in the Sistine Chapel, where the election is held. Once the Cardinals have all entered the Sistine Chapel, the order extra omnes is given by the Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations – meaning that everyone else has to leave the room. The doors are locked and sealed, and only then can the election begin.
Habemus Papam – “We have a Pope” – These are maybe the most famous Latin words of the election process. After a new Pope has been elected, white smoke comes out of the chimney of the Sistine Chapel to alert the world. Then, after a period of about an hour, the senior Cardinal Deacon comes to the central loggia (balcony, an Italian word, not Latin) of St. Peter’s Basilica to announce the results of the election to the world. His official announcement is a bit longer than these two words, but they are the essential element – and perhaps the most meaningful – that once again, a successor to St. Peter has been elected. After announcing habemus papam, the senior Cardinal Deacon says his given name and then the name he has chosen to be called as Pope – all of this in Latin, of course. For a full description of the Latin announcement, visit this site. And for a list of the first names of the Cardinal electors, in Latin, visit here.
Urbi et Orbi – “To the city and the world” – Once the senior Cardinal Deacon has announced who has been elected, the new Pope appears at the central loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica to give his first blessing. This blessing is called Urbi et Orbi – to the City (of Rome) and to the World – to Rome first, because the Pope is first of all Bishop of Rome, and also to the faithful of the entire world. The Pope also gives Urbi et Orbi blessings (usually accompanied by a message or speech of some kind) on the major liturgical feasts, like Christmas and Easter.
And now some English words that derive from Latin and are significant for understanding these days:
Conclave – from the Latin cum clavis, with a key – The process through which the College of Cardinals elect a new Pope is called a Conclave because it takes place in secret in the Sistine Chapel. After the Cardinal Electors have entered the Sistine Chapel and the command extra omnes is given (see above), the Chapel is locked with a key and no one is allowed to enter, ensuring the privacy and secrecy of the proceedings.
Cardinal – from the Latin cardo/cardinis, hinge – No, the members of the College of Cardinals are not named after the bird. Their title refers to two things: 1) the original cardinals were the bishops of the seven dioceses immediately surrounding Rome, so they were seen to be the hinges between the Bishop of Rome and the rest of the world; 2) the entire College of Cardinals today serves much the same symbolic function as hinges connecting the Pope to the rest of the world.
Pontiff – from the Latin pontifex, which is from the Latin pons/pontis, bridge – One of the many titles for the Pope is Supreme Pontiff, or chief bridge-builder. Originally a title given to Roman generals or emperors because they literally were responsible for building bridges over rivers in the empire, the Bishop of Rome has long been identified as a spiritual bridge-builder, especially helping to bridge humanity and God. Recently, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI entered the world of Twitter using the handle Pontifex, perhaps hoping that his presence there would be a bridge between the technology and spirituality.