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Papal Consistory

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During the Roman imperial epoch the term consistorium (Latin con-sistere, to stand together) was used to designate the sacred council of the emperors. In time it came to designate the senate of the Roman pontiff, that is, "the assemblage of the Cardinals in council around the Pope" (Innocent III to the Bishop of Ely and the Archdeacon of Norwich, in 1212; see Gonzalez, "Commentaria in textus decretalium Gregorii IX", III, vii, 108).

Origin and historical development

The origin of the papal consistory is closely connected with the history of the Roman presbytery or body of the Roman clergy. In the old Roman presbyterium there were deacons, in charge of the ecclesiastical temporalities in the various regions of Rome; priests, at the head of the principal churches of the city, called tituli; and (at least by the eighth century) the bishops of the dioceses in the neighborhood of Rome. The cardinals of today (divided likewise into the three orders of bishops, priests, and deacons) have succeeded the members of the ancient presbytery not only in the offices attaching to these three grades, though with somewhat different functions, but also, and chiefly, in the capacity of assisting the pope in the management of ecclesiastical affairs.

From the earliest Christian times the popes were wont to confer with the Roman presbytery on matters affecting the interests of the Church. From a letter of Pope Cornelius (254-255) to St. Cyprian we learn that he had summoned his presbytery before agreeing to the reconciliation of three schismatics. Likewise, Pope Liberius (352-363) informed the Roman clergy about the course of action he had deemed advisable to take during his exile. Pope Siricius (384-398) condemned the heresy of Jovinian after having convoked his presbytery. How far the more prominent members of the Roman clergy, eventually called cardinals, were being gradually entrusted with the management of ecclesiastical affairs is shown by the action of Leo IV and John VIII in the ninth century. The former ordered that the Roman cardinals should meet twice a week in the Sacred Palace to provide for the administration of the churches, look after the discipline of the clergy, and decide the cases of laymen. The latter ordered them to meet at least twice a month in order to take cognizance of and decide cases of clerics and laymen brought before the pope's tribunal. For many centuries, however, the Roman presbytery did not form the senate of the popes to the exclusion of all other clerics, at least in matters of greater importance. These matters were discussed and decided in the Roman council, which, though admitting the Roman clergy to an active part, consisted chiefly of bishops summoned by the pope from the greater part of Italy, as well as of other bishops who happened to be in Rome at the time. These councils were very frequent until the beginning of the twelfth century. Thenceforth, the popes held them more rarely finding it difficult to convoke them as often as the ever increasing volume of business demanded. In their stead the popes transacted the affairs brought before their court in the presence and with the assistance of the Roman cardinals, who about the same time had grown in dignity and importance, owing to the fact that the right of electing the pope now rested in them exclusively. Thus the Sacred College of Cardinals, assembled in consistory, became the chief organ of the supreme and universal government of the Church.

At first, matters of judicial as well as of administrative character were referred to the consistory. In course of time, however, the former were transferred to the Tribunal of the Sacred Rota. The "Corpus Juris" contains many of the decisions given by the popes in consistory, as is evidenced by the frequent formula de fratrun nostrorum consilio (with the advice of our brethren). The papal consistory has continued ever since to act as the supreme council of the popes, though it lost much of its importance when in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the Roman Congregations were instituted. The amount of business brought before the Holy See had gradually increased to such a vast extent that it had to be divided among several particular committees of cardinals. These committees were at first temporary but gradually became permanent, and to each of them a definite kind of ecclesiastical affairs was assigned. These permanent committees came to be known as congregations. The first of them was instituted by Paul III, others by Pius IV and Pius V, but most of them owe their origin to Sixtus V. Once the Roman Congregations, embracing in their scope almost the whole range of ecclesiastical affairs, were instituted, it was but natural that the papal consistory should lose in importance. However, it did not go into desuetude altogether; it continued to be held, but more rarely, and only in the form which me proceed to describe.

Present practice

Consistories are of three kinds: secret or ordinary, public or extraordinary and semi-public.

(1) The secret consistory is so called because no one save the pope and the cardinals is present at its deliberations. Formerly it was customary for the pope, soon after entering the hall of consistory, to confer singly with the cardinals on such personal matters as they wished to bring before him, and it was only after this audience was over that nobles and prelates were excluded from the hall. But at the present day this audience is omitted. The consistory is frequently opened with an address, or allocution, in which the pope often reviews the condition of the Church in general or in some particular country, pointing out what deserves praise or needs to be condemned. Such allocutions are afterwards given to the public in order that the world at large may know the mind of the pope on these matters. At the end of the allocution the creation of new cardinals takes place. The pope announces the names of those whom he intends to raise to the cardinalate, and asks the cardinals for their opinion; the cardinals remove their caps as a sign of consent, and the pope proceeds immediately to the formal appointment. It is also in the secret consistory that the cardinals receive from the pope the cardinal's ring, are appointed to some titular church or deaconry, exercise the option of passing from one titular church to another, and of ascending from the order of deacons and priests to the order of priests and bishops respectively. It is also here that the pope appoints the camerlengo and the Vice-Chancellor of the Holy Roman Church, and performs the ceremony of "closing" and "opening" the mouth of the new cardinals. To this consistory belong also the appointments of bishops, archbishops, and patriarchs, the transfers of these dignitaries from one see to another, the appointments of coadjutors, the creation and announcement of new dioceses, the division and union of dioceses already existing. But the details are not discussed in the consistory itself. All the previous consultations that are required in order that the pope may come to a prudent conclusion have taken place in a congregation called consistorial, and the pope in the consistory itself only gives his decision. There are some sees whose bishops are appointed through a Brief outside the consistory. Such are those in territories depending on the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda, and others as necessity may require. These appointments are merely promulgated in the secret consistory. At the end of the consistory the advocates called consistorial are admitted to request, with the usual formalities, the pallium for newly appointed archbishops; their petition is granted immediately, but the conferring of the pallium takes place later.

(2) The public consistory is so called because persons foreign to the Sacred College of Cardinals, such as Apostolic prothonotaries, the auditors of the Sacred Rota, and other prelates are called to it. Laymen also, who have made previous application, are permitted to be present. Formerly, in this consistory the pope used to give solemn reception to kings, princes, and ambassadors; but this is no longer the custom. In the public consistory the pope performs the ceremony of delivering the red hat to the newly created cardinals. Moreover, the consistorial advocates plead here the causes of beatification and canonization. These pleadings are of two kinds. In the first permission is asked that the ordinary process of beatification or canonization may be introduced, or continued, or brought to completion. The second has reference only to causes of canonization. For in accordance with the practice of the Holy See, even after it has been conclusively proved that the miracles required for canonization have been performed through the intercession of one declared blessed, the honours of a saint are not decreed to him, unless the question as to whether canonization should take place has been treated in three consistories: secret, public, and semi-public. In the secret consistory the pope asks the opinions of the cardinals, who express it singly by answering placet or non placet (aye or no). In the public consistory one of the consistorial advocates pleads the cause and a prelate answers in the pope's name, inviting all to pray in order that the pope may be enlightened on the subject. The final voting takes place in the semi-public consistory.

(3) The semi-public consistory is so called because, besides the cardinals, bishops also take part in it. To this consistory the bishops residing within one hundred miles of Rome are summoned, while invitations are sent to all the other bishops of Italy; moreover, titular patriarchs and archbishops and bishops who live in Rome, as well as bishops who happen to be sojourning there at the time, are likewise present. After all the Fathers have expressed their opinions on the subject, the pope closes the assembly with an address on the following canonization. With regard to the time for holding the consistories, the old practice of assembling them at fixed intervals has passed out of use and today they meet, as occasion demands, at the pope's wish.


Hilling, Procedure at the Roman Curia (New York, 1907); Baart, The Roman Court (New York, 1895); Humphrey, Urbs et Orbis; or The Pope as Bishop and as Pontiff (London, 1899); Smith, Elements of Ecclesiastical Law (New York, 1895), I, 270; Hergenröther-Hollweck, Lehrbuch des katholischen Kirchenrechts (Freiburg im Br., 1905), 292; Von Scherer, Handbuch des katholischen Kirchenrechts (Graz, 1886), I, 481; Andr-Wagner Dict. de Droit Canon. (Paris 1901), I, 555; Wernz, Jus Decretalium (Rome 1906), II, 394; Cohellius, Notitia Cardinalatus (Rome, 1653); Lega, De Judiciis Ecclesiasticis (Rome, 1898), II, 253.

About this page

APA citation. Papi, H. (1908). Papal Consistory. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Papi, Hector. "Papal Consistory." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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