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Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church

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Cardinal Camerlengo

Coat of arms of the Cardinal Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church (the escutcheon and motto are proper to the incumbent)

Not to be confused with the post of Camerlengo of the Sacred College of Cardinals.

The Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church (pl. Camerlenghi) (Italian for "Chamberlain") is an official of the Papal court.

Description and History

The Camerlengo is the administrator of the property and revenues of the Holy See; his responsibilities formerly included the fiscal administration of the Patrimony of St. Peter. As regulated in the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus [1], Camerlengo is always a Cardinal. His heraldic arms are ornamented with two keys (one gold, one silver) in saltire surmounted by an ombrellino, a canopy or umbrella of alternating red and yellow stripes, which are also the arms of a Sede Vacante (i.e. a Papal interregnum).

Until the 11th century, the Archdeacon of the Roman Church was responsible for the administration of the property of the Church (i.e., the Diocese of Rome), but its numerous ancient privileges and rights had come to make it a frequent hindrance to independent action on the part of the Pope; as a result, when the last Archdeacon Hildebrand was elected to the papacy as Gregory VII in 1073, he suppressed the Archdiaconate and the cardinal entrusted with the supervision of the Apostolic Camera (Camera Apostolica), i.e., the temporalities of the Holy See, became known as the Camerarius, or Chamberlain.

Gregorio Leti (writing as Girolamo Lunadoro, in 1656) [2] notes that the Camerlengo enjoys an income of 10,000 to 12,000 scudi a year out of the Apostolic Camera. He had jurisdiction over all suits involving the Apostolic Camera, and could judge separately or in association with the Clerics of the Apostolic Camera; he was not impeded by Consistory. He has appellate jurisdiction over suits decided by the Masters of the Roads. In a narration of the eighteenth century, the Camerlengo is the chief officer in the Apostolic Camera, the Financial Council of the Pope. In his office are the Governor of Rome (who is Vice-Chancellor), The Treasurer, the Auditor, the President, the Advocate General, the Fiscal Procurator, the Commissary, and twelve Clerks of the Chamber (one with the special title of Prefect of the Grain Supply, another Prefect of Provisions, another Prefect of Prisons, and another Prefect of Roads). Each Clerk of the Chamber receives around 8,000 scudi a year, representing 10% of the business that passes through his office.[3]

The powers and functions of the Camerlengo were diminished considerably in the Nineteenth Century, first by the reorganisation of the Papal government after the election of Pius VII (October 30, 1800); then by the reorganization of the Papal government after the return of Pius IX from exile in 1850; and then by the loss of the Papal States in 1860 and the City of Rome in 1870. The chief beneficiary of these changes was the Secretary of State.[4] In the twentieth century, the office of Secretary of State was combined with that of Camerlengo by Pietro Cardinl Gasparri (from 1916-1930), Cardinal Pacelli (from 1935-1939), and Jean Cardinal Villot (from 1970-1979). In the twenty-first century, they are being held concurrently by Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone (since 2007).

Chief among the present responsibilities of the Camerlengo is the formal determination of the death of the reigning Pope; the traditional procedure for this was to strike gently the Pope's head three times with a silver hammer and to call his baptismal name (e.g. "Albine, dormisne?", i.e. "Albino, are you sleeping?")[5] After the Pope is declared dead, the Camerlengo takes possession of the Ring of the Fisherman and cuts it with shears in the presence of the Cardinals, and also destroys the face of the Pope's official seal. These acts symbolize the end of the late Pope's authority. The Camerlengo then notifies the appropriate officers of the Roman Curia and the Dean of the College of Cardinals. He is then involved with the preparations concerning the conclave and the Pope's funeral.

Until a successor Pope can be elected, the Camerlengo serves as acting head of State of the Vatican City. He is not, however, currently responsible for the government of the Catholic Church during a sede vacante. Universi Dominici Gregis placed that task in the hands of the College of Cardinals — although this power of government is extremely limited, being merely enough to allow Church institutions to continue to operate and perform some basic functions without making any definitive decisions or appointments that are normally reserved to other powers delegated by the Pope. The Camerlengo, though, does keep his office during the sede vacante, as opposed to the rest of the Roman Curia. The only other person who keeps his office is the Major Penitentiary.

Two Camerlenghi have been elected Pope: Gioacchino Cardinal Pecci (Pope Leo XIII) in 1878 and Eugenio Cardianal Pacelli (Pope Pius XII) in 1939. Two others, Cencio, who was elected as Pope Honorius III in 1216, and Rinaldo Cardinal Conti di Segni, elected as Pope Alexander IV in 1254, did not occupy that post at the time of their elections to the papacy (Cencio was Camerlengo from 1188 until 1198, while Rinaldo from 1227 until 1231).[6]

The current Camerlengo is His Eminence Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, S.D.B., appointed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007.

List of Chamberlains of the Holy Roman Church


The Camerlengo was a major character in the novel Angels and Demons by Dan Brown. He also appeared in the film of the same name, in which the character was played by Scottish actor Ewan McGregor. The character, however, was only a priest, not a cardinal.


  1. Pastor Bonus
  2. Girolamo Lunadoro [Gregorio Leti], Relatione della Corte di Roma, e de' Riti che si osservano in esta, suoi Magistrati, Officii, e loro giurisdittione (Genoa: Il Calenzani 1656), pp. 39, 318-320.
  3. Jean Aymon, Tableau de la cour de Rome seconde edition (La Haye: Jean Neaulme, 1726), Chapitre IX-XIV, pp. 256-265.
  4. The Camerlengo. Notes by Prof. J. P. Adams
  5. The reality of this popular and dramatic tale is positively denied by Hartwell de la Garde Grissell, Chamberlain of Honor di numero to Pope Pius IX, Pope Leo XIII, and Pope Pius X, who was present at the ceremony of recognition in 1903: "It may also be here mentioned that no such ceremony as striking the dead Pope's forehead with a silver hammer takes place, and that the exact method of calling aloud his name is not tied down to any determinate form, but is left to the discretion of the Cardinal Camerlengo.... In an original MS. diary in my possession written by Domenico Cappelli of Ascoli, who was Master of Ceremonies to five Popes—Alexander VII., Clement IX., Clement X., Innocent XI., and Alexander VIII.—he states that the custom of calling aloud three times the words 'Pater Sancte' was discontinued on the death of Clement X. in 1676 (Hartwell de la Garde Grissell, Sede Vacante, being a Diary written during the Conclave of 1903, with additional Notes on the Accession and Coronation of Pius X (Oxford and London: James Parker and Co. 1903), page 2.
  6. It is sometimes claimed that Cosimo Gentile Migliorati (Pope Innocent VII from 1404 until 1406) was also Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church[1]. But Kochendörfer, p. 599, says that he did not find any document mentioning him in this capacity.
  7. The New Cambridge Medieval History, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 423 note 347
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 Gaetano Moroni, Dizionario di erudizione storico-ecclesiastica da S. Pietro sino ai nostri giorni, vol. 99, p. 127-128[2]
  9. 1383-1415 camerlengo of the obediences of Avignon and Pisa in the Great Western Schism


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