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The Pope’s Coins

Among the details that fall into place when the reign of a pope comes to an end are the issuance of new Vatican postage stamps and coins.
These stamps and coins, instead of bearing the likeness of the reigning pope, bear the coat of arms of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the carmerlengo, or chamberlain, of the Holy Roman Church.
Among the carmelengo’s responsibilities are verifying the death of a pope and formally notifying specific church authorities. Until a new pope is elected, the carmerlengo governs the Vatican City State, which has the same status as any sovereign nation. Governance of the Church itself is in the hands of the College of Cardinals.
The front of the new coins will bear Cardinal Bertone’s coat of arms and the words “Sede Vacante” — “vacant chair.”
The reverse side of the coin will bear an image of a dove and the words “Veni Sancte Spiritus” — “Come Holy Spirit.”
Although the Vatican is not a member of the European Union, it has adopted the Euro as its monetary denomination and is affected by a formal compact with the EU.
Under that compact, the Vatican can issue only one new coin design per year, unless there is a vacancy in the papal office. For 2013, coins will be issued for the “sede vacante” period, and coins will be issued in April with the image of Benedict XVI, who retired from the office on February 28.
These coins are not legal tender outside the Vatican.
The issuance of the coins serves some practical purposes, but it also serves to remind us of a seminal part of our Catholic faith — that the church, in addition to being one, holy, and catholic or universal, is also apostolic.
The vacant chair referred to in the legend “sede vacante” is the chair of Peter.
The transition that is about to take place between the papacy of Benedict XVI and that of whoever is elected to follow him continues succession that began with the apostle on whom Jesus promised to build his Church.
No one can oversee the teaching authority of the Church, no one can bind on earth and therefore in heaven, except a successor to Peter, and so the public acknowledgement that the chair is vacant is not incidental.
The election of a new pope always generates curiosity and excitement inside and outside the Catholic Church.
It also generates speculation — some of it far-fetched — about why a certain man may be chosen for the papacy and what he might do once he is selected.
The symbolism of the reverse side of the coin helps us Catholics, at least, temper the curiosity and speculation with our faith that the Holy Spirit will guide the cardinals as they deliberate in the conclave and will guide and support whoever emerges from the Sistine Chapel as the next Holy Father.
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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