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Anne Van Tilburg wrote:

Hi Mike,

Could you please tell me:

  • When the Holy See first started?
  • Who started it?
  • In which year? and
  • Also, why is it called the Holy See?

Kind Regards,


  { When was the Holy See first established, who started it, and why is it called the Holy See? }

Mike replied:

Hi Ann,

I found this article on New Advent that may answer some, if not all, of your questions:

From this article I deduced the following:

You said:

  • Could you please tell me when the Holy See first started?

The origin of these terms can only be approximately ascertained.

You said:

  • Who started it?

It was first used to designate the Churches founded by the Apostles

You said:

  • In which year?

33 A.D. or a few years after

You said:

  • Why is it called Holy See?

Holy See comes from the Latin for: Holy Chair [of Peter, like Mose's Chair in the Old Testament]
The word holy means to be set apart from. . . the world.

I have included the whole article below along with an official definition from the Sunday Visitor's Encyclopedia of Catholic History.

I hope this helps,


The term "Holy See" from New Advent

Holy See
(From the Latin Sancta Sedes, Holy Chair).

A term derived from the enthronement-ceremony of the bishops of Rome. The seat or chair in question must not be confounded with the ancient sedes gestatoria in the centre of the apse of St. Peter's, and immemorially venerated as the cathedra Petri, or Chair of Peter; the term means, in a general sense, the actual seat (i.e. residence) of the supreme pastor of the Church, together with the various ecclesiastical authorities who constitute the central administration.

In this canonical and diplomatic sense, the term is synonymous with:

  • "Apostolic See"
  • "Holy Apostolic See"
  • "Roman Church"
  • "Roman Curia".

The origin of these terms can only be approximately ascertained. The word sedes, "chair", is an old technical term applicable to all episcopal sees. It was first used to designate the Churches founded by the Apostles; later the word was applied to the principal Christian Churches. These ecclesiae dictae majores were understood to be the five great patriarchal sees of Christian antiquity:

  • Rome
  • Alexandria
  • Antioch
  • Jerusalem, and
  • Constantinople.

To these the word sedes was applied: "quod in iis episcopi sederent in thronis", and of Rome it was expressly said: "Romana quidem erat prima sedes propria dicta." Thus, Gelasius I (492-496) at a Roman council: "Est ergo prima Petri apostoli sedes." In the earliest Christian writings, also, we often find references to the see or chair of Peter: "Sedet in cathedra Petri". Throughout the early Middle Ages the term was constantly in official use. Thus, in the "Liber Pontificalis" (ed. Duchesne, II, Paris, 1892, 7), under Leo III (795-816): "Nos sedem apostolicam, quae est caput omnium Dei ecclesiarum, judicare non audemus." (We dare not judge the Apostolic See, which is the head of all the Churches of God.) We can thus readily understand how Holy See came be the technical term for the pope, the central ecclesiastical government, and the actual abode of the same.

The papal reservations of benefices, customary in the Middle Ages, made necessary a more exact knowledge of the location of the "Holy See", e.g. when the incumbent of a benefice happened to die "apud sanctam sedem". Where was the "Holy See", when the pope lived apart from the ordinary central administration? From the thirteenth to the fifteenth century we find no satisfactory solution of this question, and can only observe the decisions of the Curia in individual cases. Thus, it was not deemed necessary that the pope should reside in Rome: "Ubi Papa, ibi Curia", i.e., it was taken for granted that the Curia or machinery of administration always followed the pope. This is clearly shown by an interesting case under Nicholas III, who lived at Soriano from 8 June, 1280, till his death on 22 August of the same year. There were with him only his personal attendants, and the officials in charge of the papal seal (bullatores). The Curia, properly speaking, was at Viterbo, whither the pope frequently went to transact affairs, and where he also gave audiences: "Audientiam suam fecit." Nevertheless, he ordered Bulls to be dated from Soriano, which was done (Baumgarten, "Aus K. und Kammer", Freiburg, 1907, 279). More than a century later, as appears from the official rules drawn up under Benedict XIII (Pedro de Luna; rules 148, 151, 158) and John XXIII (rule 68), this important point was still undecided. The aforesaid rules of Benedict XIII and John XXIII appeared on 28 November, 1404, and 5 June, 1413, respectively (Von Ottenthal, "Die papstlichen Kanzleiregeln von Johann XXII bis Nikolaus V", Innsbruck, 1888, pp. 148, 151, 152, and 185). During the journey of Martin V (1417-1431) from Constance to Rome it frequently occurred that the pope and ecclesiastical authorities were separated from each other; even at this late date the official location of the "Holy See", in as far as this was legally important, was not yet authoritatively fixed. This uncertainty, says Bangen, caused Clement VIII to draw up the Constitution: "Cum ob nonnullas", in which it is laid down that, if the pope and the pontifical administration should not reside in the same place, the utterances of both are authoritative, provided they are in agreement with each other. Covarruvias and Gonzalez agree that: "Curia Romana ibi censetur esse, ubi est papa cum cancellaria et tribunalibus et officialibus suis, quos ad regimen ecclesiae adhibet" (the Roman Curia is considered to be where the pope is, with the chancery, tribunals, and officials whom he employs in the Government of the Church). (Bangen, "Die römische Kurie", Münster, 1854, I, i, 5). Hinschius (System des katholischen Kirchenrechts, III, Berlin, 1883, 135, remark 6) follows the medieval opinion: "Ubi Papa, ibi Curia"; but this seems no longer tenable.


From the Sunday Visitor's Encyclopedia of Catholic History on CD-ROM:

Holy See Term considered synonymous with the Apostolic See that is used to describe the sovereignty, authority, and jurisdiction wielded by the pope and the central administration, spiritual and temporal, of the Church. While the Holy See exercises its jurisdiction in Rome, it should not be confused or considered the same as the Stato della Città del Vaticano (State of Vatican City), which is merely the territorial possession of the papacy as guaranteed by the Lateran Treaty of 1929 and assuring the independence of the Holy See to conduct its universal mission. The Holy See has a dual significance: as a see it denotes the presence of the local bishop's administration or government over a diocese, but the use of “Holy” (or Apostolic) makes clear the unique position of the see. As the successor of St. Peter, the pope is the sovereign pontiff, visible head of the Church, and holder of supreme, absolute jurisdiction over the entire Church, governing with the full authority of St. Peter.

The pope is assisted in the administration of the Church by various aides and organs of government. These are the congregations, the Secretariat of State, tribunals, and commissions, often collectively called the Roman Curia or also known as dicasteries. Through them, authority is transmitted to the entire Church orders or jurisdictions to the bishops, vicars apostolic, prefects apostolic, superiors of the religious institutes, superiors of missions, and others. The function and duties of the Curia are clearly defined in the Code of Canon Law (Canons 330-367) and in the apostolic constitution Pastor Bonus, issued by Pope John Paul II on June 28, 1988.

Although it is common parlance to say that diplomats from various countries are posted to the Vatican, it is more correct to state that diplomatic representation is to the Holy See. The Holy See is the world's oldest sovereign state to participate in international relations, remaining so even after the liquidation of the temporal possessions of the papacy in 1870. The popes are represented in many lands by diplomats of various ranks, depending upon the current state of diplomatic relations ¾ representatives may range from apostolic delegates to pro-nuncios to nuncios who enjoy senior status in any diplomatic corps. (For the history of the temporal holdings of the papacy, see Papal States; also Vatican and Vatican City, State of; see also Cardinals, College of and Curia, Roman.)

The origin of the term and the understanding of its authority is somewhat obscure owing to the use of apostolic see (sedes apostolicae) for those churches founded by the Apostles; later the word sedes (or “see”) was applied to the five great patriarchal sees of Christian antiquity, Rome, Alexandria, Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Rome, however, had clear preeminence as seen in the declaration of Pope Gelasius I (492-496): “Est ergo prima Petri apostoli sedes.” The Liber Pontificalis states under the entry for Pope Leo III (795-816): “Nos sedem apostolicam, quae est caput omnium Dei ecclesiarum, judicare non audemus” (“We dare not to judge the Holy See which is head of all the Churches of God”). Scholars are thus able to trace the application of the term Holy See in denoting the pope and the central administration of the Church. In those times, the 1200s to the 1400s, when, for various reasons, the popes departed Rome, it was accepted that the administration went with him ¾ “Ubi papa, ibi Curia” (“Where there is the pope, there is the Curia”) ¾ although for a long time there was uncertainty as to where the Holy See was actually fixed. To clarify legal questions arising out of the infrequent but problematic separation of the pope and the Curia, Pope Clement VIII (r. 1592-1605) issued the constitution Cum ob nonnullas, establishing the principle that if the pontiff and Curia are separated, the proclamations of both are considered legal, provided that they are in full agreement with each other.

Matthew Buson. Our Sunday Visitor's Encyclopedia of Catholic History. Copyright © 1995, Our Sunday Visitor.

John replied:

Hi Ann,

Just to add to what Mike said, I would think that the title Apostolic See would have come some time after the death of the Apostles to distinguish the Churches that were established by Apostles.

There were three major Apostolic Sees at the begriming. Interestingly enough, they were somehow connected to Peter.

  1. We know that Peter was first the Bishop of Antioch and then went on to Rome, so Rome became the first in the order.
  2. Antioch then became second.
  3. The third was Alexandria which was established by Mark. He was not one of the twelve but traveled with Peter and wrote the Gospel of Mark.

The three primary Sees are all Petrine. Later, Constantinople was established.

Notice that Paul was the first to preach in Ephesus. He left Timothy as Bishop. Later, the Apostle John came to Ephesus, yet Ephesus was never an Apostolic See, so the establishments of Apostolic Sees also had much to do with the centrality and importance of the city. The title also is related to the development of Liturgical norms and practices.

Later these cities became administrative centers for the local Churches. In some ways, Sees were established to govern the Church. To use a political analogy, Rome was the capitol of the West and of the whole Church, while the other sees were capitols of the local Church.


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