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Originally, the Latin word consistorium meant simply 'sitting together', just as the Greek syn(h)edrion (of which the Biblical sanhedrin was a corruption).

In the Roman empire, it was specifically applied to a formal meeting of the Comites consistoriales, i.e. those members of the Emperor's court with the title of Comes (the translation count is rather confusing) who were assigned—and this conferred the highest rank amongst Comites—to advise him in official, important matters, such as drafting bills and other written decisions, rather like the privy council of a feudal king. As the senate—in law still retaining the highest constitutional position, since the republic was never formally ended—lost most of its political importance, being reduced almost to a rubber stamp as a single-party state's parliament usually is, they stepped in as an official alternative power to the throne, but real power could just as well lie mainly elsewhere, depending on the imperial favor and personal machinations



Roman Catholic Church

The consistory is a formal meeting of the Sacred College of Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church, except when convened to elect a new pope (in which case the meeting is called a conclave, and special rules of membership, procedure, and secrecy apply). Consistories are held in Vatican City for taking care of the business of the college, which usually involves advising the Pope on important matters concerning the church.

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

Since the Pope creates new cardinals in the presence of the college, the consistory is where this takes place (the next consistory for the creation of new cardinals is expected to be sometime in 2010). The identities of the cardinals-to-be are generally announced some time in advance, but only at the time of the consistory does the elevation to the cardinalate take effect, since that is when the Pope formally publishes the decree of elevation. Some men have died before the consistory date, and if a Pope dies before the consistory all the nominations are voided. However, the cardinal himself does not have to attend the consistory for his elevation to be effective.

Those new cardinals present are presented with their rings, zucchetti (small skullcaps), and birette (four-cornered silk hats) by the Pope. Formerly they also received an elaborate broad-brimmed tasseled hat, the galerum rubrum, at the ceremony, but Pope Paul VI abolished this in 1967 and those cardinals who want these obtain them privately from a maker in Rome.

The zucchetto, the biretta, and the galerum rubrum are all scarlet, the distinctive color of cardinals' vestments. When a diocesan cardinal dies, his galerum rubrum is suspended from the ceiling of his cathedral.

At the consistory cardinals are generally assigned titular churches in the diocese of Rome, though Pope Paul VI abolished their functional involvement in the governance of these churches; the cardinals formally "take possession" of these churches at a later date.

In Protestant churches

The old-Prussian March of Brandenburg Consistory resided in the 1735-built Collegienhaus, sharing it till 1913 with the Kammergericht, and the official apartment for the consistorial president until its destruction in an US air raid on February 3, 1945. Today's reconstructed edifice is part of the Jewish Museum Berlin.

In Scandinavia, the word consistory (Konsistorium etc.) has been used for the chapter of a cathedral.

In the Lutheran territories of imperial immediacy in the Holy Roman Empire episcopal offices were not staffed anymore and the secular government assumed the function of the bishop. In the 16th and 17th c. most governments of Lutheran territories pooled the administrative and religious affairs in a distinct office called the consistory. While Protestantism often still did not form a separate legal entity, with state and Protestantism not being separated, the consistory turned out to be the oldest body of many modern church bodies, which developed as independent legal entities in the 18th and 19th c. With territorial changes (heritage and conquest) many territories became multi-denominational.

The Building of the former Consistory (est. in 1923) of the old Prussian Ecclesiastical Province of Posen-West Prussia in today's Piła, now the administrative centre of an oil and gas drilling company.

The consistory, being rather a governmental than a religious office, was then often competent for all (Protestant) denominations (e.g. in Bremen-Verden) or even all religions (e.g. in Prussia, see Evangelical Church in Prussia) in the respective territory. The rather governmental character of the consistory is the reason why the term was given up in many church bodies after the separation of state and religion. In Germany today a single Protestant church body, the Evangelical Church of Berlin-Brandenburg-Silesian Upper Lusatia, uses the term consistory for its administrative office. Consistories used to be and still are usually staffed with clerics and jurists. Today they are usually led by a consistorial president, a laymen (usually a jurist), historically General Superintendents, clerics, presided them. The other members bear the title (Upper) Consistorial Councillor (German: (Ober-)Konsistorialrat).

Also the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia uses the term consistory for its central administrative office.

In the Reformed churches, a Consistory is a congregation's governing body of elected officials that include the Elders and the Deacons, thus making the body similar to the Session in Presbyterian churches.


In Jewish usage, a consistory is a body governing the Jewish congregations of a province or of a country; also the district administered by the consistory. The Jews in countries under French influence made use of the term in the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the movement for political emancipation demanded the creation of a representative body which could transact official business with a government in the name of the Jews, and when the desire for reform among the educated classes demanded the creation of a body vested with authority to render religious decisions.


The word consistory (konsistorium) is also used in the sense of "university board" at some universities in Germany, Scandinavia and Finland (konsistori). In other countries another august assembly lends an alternative name to an equivalent body, e.g. senat in Belgium.


In Freemasonry a consistory is the body which houses the highest (non-honorary) degrees of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite. The 31st and 32nd degrees of Scottish Rite Freemasonry (Southern Jurisdiction, U.S.A) meet in a consistory. Often, the Scottish Rite Temple in a town is referred to by the members as simply "the consistory".

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

CONSISTORY (Lat. consistorium, literally, a standing place, hence meeting place, waiting or audience chamber), a term which, like many other expressions, has undergone a regular evolution in the course of centuries. It was first applied to the audiencechamber in which the emperors received petitions and gave judgment; it soon came to mean also the persons who took part in the deliberation, and, by an extension of meaning, a tribunal or jurisdiction (see Du Cange, Glossarium, s.v.). But the expression has now long been exclusively applied to gatherings of ecclesiastical persons for the purpose of administering justice or transacting business.

In the Western Church the episcopal consistory was simply the bishops' tribunal, the proceedings of which took a more or less strictly judicial form. But the name has disappeared almost everywhere; the only episcopal con sistories outside England (see Consistory Courts) which survive are in Austria and in certain dioceses of Bavaria and Germany (see Vering, Kirchenrecht, § 149). Thus the name consistory has come to be applied almost exclusively to meetings of the college of cardinals with the pope as president, formerly for deliberative purposes, but nowadays purely formal. These meetings used to be frequent, but are now held very seldom, taking place only three or four times a year.

The cardinals (q.v.) form the pope's council and senate; before it became the custom to entrust the management of various kinds of business, grouped according to their nature, to commissions composed of cardinals, the pope used to consider and discuss with the whole sacred college matters of general interest or those which were specially referred to him, notably the questions submitted to him by bishops from all parts of Christendom. To this are due a good number of the decretals which have found a place in the Corpus juris canonici. In the middle ages, when the cardinals were few in number, consistories were held very often. Thus the Gesta of Innocent III. tell us that this great pope "held publicly, three times a week, according to the usage then established, a solemn consistory; in it he heard complaints from all men, and examined in person even affairs of the least importance with a prudence and perspicacity which were the admiration of all." Later we have recorded only one consistory a week; in the 16th century, according to Cardinal De Luca, it usually took place only twice in a month; and soon the consistories were held at still greater intervals; they were held more or less regularly during the Ember weeks, but now they have no longer a fixed date.

Whatever be their form, they are nowadays merely ceremonial, the business upon which they are supposed to meet being discussed and decided previously; consequently, they are merely a kind of solemn promulgation. The preparation of the business is entrusted to the commission of cardinals known as the Consistorial Congregation.

There are three kinds of consistory: the secret consistory, in which only the cardinals take part; the public consistory, to which are admitted persons from outside and a fairly large audience; and finally, the semi-public consistory, in which the bishops present in Rome take part with the cardinals, and are allowed to state their opinion. The last form is only used in the case of the consistory preceding a canonization. The public consistory is now only held for the ceremony of conferring the hat on newly created cardinals; formerly the popes used to receive in public consistory sovereigns and certain other great persons, but in this case the consistory was not deliberative in form.

Finally, in secret consistories were discussed matters of general interest, such as the creation of cardinals, the provision of cathedral churches and other higher benefices, - hence called consistorial, - the creation, union or division of dioceses, the conferring of the pallium, and other matters of importance. In these consistories takes place the "preconization" of bishops appointed since the last consistory. The custom is for the pope to open the meeting by a discourse, or "consistorial allocution," in which he deals with the position of the Church, either in general or in some particular country; or again, he may denounce some danger which is threatening at the time either the faith or discipline, or protest against attacks upon the rights of the Church. Such, for example, were the allocutions of Pius IX. against the successive invasions of his temporal domain, or that of Pius X. against the breaking of the Concordat by the French government.

In the consistory, the cardinals are seated in a circle around the pope; on his right sits the chief cardinal bishop, after whom are placed in order all the others; on the left of the pope stands the chief cardinal deacon; the chief cardinal priest comes next to the last cardinal bishop, and the last cardinal priest next to the last cardinal deacon. As in the old imperial consistorium, the cardinals assemble in the hall of the consistory, and there await the pope, who takes his place upon his throne; in former days he used first to give audience to those cardinals who had to submit certain matters to him, after which the doors were shut and the consistory became secret.


-BOUiX, De Curia romana, pt. ii. c. I (Paris, 18 59); Plattenberg, Notitia congregationum, cap. 3 (Hildesheim, 16 93); Cardinal de Luca, Theatrum veritatis, lib. xv. p. 2 (Rome, 1671).

(A. Bo.*)

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