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In a Timeless Tradition, the Camerlengo Taps His Silver Hammer on the Pope’s Head

In a Timeless Tradition, the Camerlengo Taps His Silver Hammer on the Pope’s Head December 20, 2014

Today in Vatican City, Pope Francis named a new camerlengo.

For those (probably most of us) who aren’t sure what that means, the “camerlengo” or “chamberlain” is the  cardinal who keeps things running smoothly in the Vatican City-State after the death or resignation of a pope.  According to Wikipedia:

Unlike the rest of Roman Curia, the Camerlengo retains his office during the sede vacante and functions as the executive director of the Vatican’s operations, answerable to the College of Cardinals. This is primarily to carry out the College’s decisions with regard to the funeral of the late Pope and the events leading up to the conclave. The only other person who keeps his office during this time is the Major Penitentiary.

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran of France was named to the post vacated this month by Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who has reached the age of 80.  After 80, a cardinal may no longer enter a conclave to elect a new pope.

The role of the camerlengo is a unique one in the Catholic Church.  He is administrator of the property and revenues of the Holy See.   He has limited power as acting head of state, to keep the government moving forward during an interregnum, the period between two popes.

But more interestingly, when a pope dies in office, it is the camerlengo who makes an official determination of death.

  • Traditionally, he does this by first calling the pope by name: “Albine, dormisne?” (In English:  “[Name], are you sleeping?”)
  • If he receives no response, he taps a silver hammer three times on the forehead of the deceased pope.
  • And then, having confirmed that the Holy Father is, indeed, dead, the camerlengo, in the presence of the cardinals, takes possession of the Ring of the Fisherman which the Pope wears, and cuts it in half with shears to prevent its use until a new pope is elected in the conclave.


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