VATICAN CITY — When Pope Benedict XVI officially leaves office at 8 p.m. Feb. 28, most of the top-level Vatican officials lose their jobs, but that does not mean the majority of Vatican employees get a vacation.
Although Catholics inside and outside the Vatican love to complain about its unwieldy bureaucracy, coordinating the universal ministry of the church involves a steady flow of paperwork, correspondence and meeting planning. All of that continues even when there is no pope.
However, the publication of documents, the nomination of new bishops and the approval of statutes for Catholic universities and religious orders are suspended. Anything that must be issued in the name of the Vatican or in the name of the pope must be approved by Pope Benedict's successor.
"The general rule is that all ordinary business continues," the secretary of one Vatican congregation told Catholic News Service during the "interregnum" -- the period between popes -- in 2005. "Like in most bureaucracies, most of our business is ordinary business."
Commissions and subcommittees continue to meet, reports continue to be prepared, letters are answered and Vatican officials try to tidy their desks enough to be able to inform the new pope about exactly where their various projects stand.
Under long-standing church rules, updated by Blessed John Paul II in 1996, the Vatican secretary of state, the prefects of Vatican congregations and the presidents of pontifical councils lose their jobs the minute the papacy is vacant; the offices are run by the congregation and council secretaries during the interregnum.
However, the prefects and presidents don't pack up their offices before they leave. Sixteen of the 22 prefects and presidents are cardinals who will be participating in the conclave to elect a new pope. Generally, immediately after the election of a new pope, the prefects and presidents are asked to take up their old jobs again, at least temporarily.
While Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone leaves his position as secretary of state, with the interregnum the real work begins for his position as camerlengo or chamberlain of the Holy Roman Church; during the period when there is no pope, he is charged with administering the temporal goods of the church.
The other person who does not lose his job is the head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, currently Cardinal Manuel Montiero de Castro. The Apostolic Penitentiary is a Vatican court dealing with matters related to the sacrament of confession and to indulgences. His position is not suspended because he is the person who ensures penitents guilty of serious sin and seeking forgiveness can receive absolution.
During the 2005 interregnum, the head of the Apostolic Penitentiary was U.S. Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, who is now retired. He told CNS at the time that it was his responsibility to ensure that forgiveness is available at all times to any sinner.
While much of the Vatican's activity takes a pause during the interregnum, Christ's desire to save people does not rest, Cardinal Stafford said.
Portuguese Cardinal Montiero de Castro's responsibility continues even while he is in the Sistine Chapel voting for a new pope. His aides may send petitions for absolution to him even inside the conclave -- one of the very few exceptions to the rule that the cardinals be out of contact with the outside world.