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Arms of Cardinal Jean Villot Script: Latin Lettering: SEDE VACANTE SEPTEMBER MCMLXXVIII Translation: Vacant Seat September 1978 Engraver: Nicola Morelli

1978 Vatican 500 Lire Sede Vacante September

A coin to mark a once in 400 year event

This is my entry for Day 22 “V” of the Blogging from A-Z April Challenge!
V = Vatican City.

2010 - 2024 2024 (larger with A Z on top) Blogging from A - Z April Challenge a-to-zChallenge.com

The Papacy

The coat of arms of Vatican City, from Vatican.va

Matthew 16:18, Jesus said to the Apostle Peter: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it”. Peter became the first Pope, the leader of the Catholic Church.

The current pope (Francis, as at April 2024) is the 266th Pontiff, including the first Pope, the disciple, St Peter.

That gives us an average for each pope of around seven years as head of the Catholic Church – so at 11 years so far, Pope Francis is having a good run. St Peter is considered the longest serving pope, at either 34 or 37 years. Piux IX in the 1800s served for 31 years, the longest verifiable papacy, and the last head of state of the Papal States. More recently, Saint John Paul II served as pope for 26 years.

Some popes, only serve a very short time. There have been nine popes who served for less than a month.

When a pope dies, or abdicates, the College of Cardinals elects a new Pope. There are over 200 cardinals and they are the most senior officials of the church. All eligible cardinals (those under 80 years old) must come to and reside at the Vatican, with no contact with the outside world. The process continues until a candidate has achieved the required majority and accepts the position. This can take days, weeks, even months.


Arms of Cardinal Jean Villot

Script: Latin


Vacant Seat
September 1978

Engraver: Nicola Morelli

The obverse of the coin features the coat of arms of Cardinal Jean Villot. Text around the edge reads “Sede Vacante September” and the year “MCMLXXVIII” (1978 in Roman Numerals).

The time when the papacy is vacant is known as “Sede Vacante”, literally “The chair is vacant“. This phrase can refer to any diocese without a bishop, but is most widely known for the period between Popes. As well as being the head of the Church, the Pope is specifically also the bishop of Rome.

During the time the papacy is vacant, the cardinals as a body act as the head of the church, and the Chamberlain oversees the process. In 1978, Cardinal Jean-Marie Villot was Chamberlain. It is his coat of arms which features on the Sede Vacante coins issued in 1978, of which there were two.

1978 saw a 1 in 400 year event – a year of three Popes. The last time this had happened was 1605. There have been a total of 13 years of three Popes, and one year of four Popes (1276: Gregory X, Innocent V, Adrian V, and John XXI).

In 1978, when Pope Paul VI passed away in August, there was a period of Sede Vacante from August 6 to August 26. The Vatican issued a non-circulating commemorative 500 Lire coin to mark the occasion.

Cardinal Albino Luciani was elected Pope John Paul. A non-circulating commemorative 1,000 Lire coin was issued to mark the election of Pope John Paul. This turned out to be the only coin issued in the Pope’s lifetime, as the Smiling Pope passed away after only 33 days as pontiff. The second period of Sede Vacante lasted from September 28 to October 16, at which time Cardinal Karol Józef Wojtyła was elected Pope John Paul II.

The main difference between the two sede vacante coins is the addition of the word “September” on the later coin.


Descending radiant dove Script: Latin Lettering: VENI SANCTE SPIRITVS STATO DELLA CITTA' DEL VATICANO L.500 Translation: Came with Holy Spirit Vatican City State Engraver: Nicola Morelli

The reverse features a descending radiant dove, with the country name “Stato Della Citta Del Vaticano”, and the text “Veni Sancte Spiritvs” or “Come, Holy Spirit”.

Again, the reverse designs of the two 1978 Sede Vacante coins were quite similar, with only minor adjustments of the same features.

Doves are a common feature of Vatican coins, appearing on at least at least 34 Vatican coins in the past century.

A Numista search for “Sede vacante” finds 198 matches. Of these 109 were issued by Papal States / Vatican City. with the newest 18 being issued by the modern Vatican City. I find these Sede Vacante coins a really interesting issue of an unusual time in the church. The Vatican issue many really interesting designs for a range of Church occasions. What is your favourite Vatican issue?

Arms of Cardinal Jean Villot Script: Latin Lettering: SEDE VACANTE SEPTEMBER MCMLXXVIII Translation: Vacant Seat September 1978 Engraver: Nicola Morelli






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