VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Over 200,000 Catholic faithful lined up in the past three days to bid their last farewell to the remains of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. The funeral Mass on Thursday (Jan. 5) for the first pope to retire in over 600 years is bound to be a historic event.
Even in the centuries-old tradition of the Catholic Church, there is no clear etiquette for how to celebrate the funeral of a retired pope. Usually, when a pope dies, the next pope has to be elected during a conclave, a gathering of cardinals behind the closed doors of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican.
Since Benedict XVI stepped down as pope in 2013, there has already been a conclave and Pope Francis has reigned as pontiff for almost 10 years. This means Francis will be celebrating the Mass for Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peter’s Square on Thursday.
The rare occasion of a pope attending the funeral of his predecessor last occurred in 1802, when Pope Pius VII asked that the body of his predecessor, Pope Pius VI, be brought to Rome for a solemn funeral Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. Pius VI spent the last years of his life as a hostage to the French army under Napoleon Bonaparte and died in France.
The last pope to have resigned, Pope Celestine V in 1294, died in a castle not far from Rome under the suspicion that he was murdered by his successor, Pope Boniface VIII.
While the Mass for Benedict, who took the title of emeritus pope after stepping down, will echo the funerals of other deceased pontiffs, it will also have some omissions and a few novelties due to the extraordinary circumstances. “The baseline is the same” as the funeral for a pope, said Vatican spokesperson Matteo Bruni, answering questions by journalists on Tuesday. But the service, put together by liturgy experts, is a result of their studies and “not a text that was decided at a specific moment.”
Major differences will be the omission of liturgical aspects specific to funerals for reigning popes. The final prayers by the Diocese of Rome and the Eastern churches will not be included in the liturgy and the readings will be different. The Mass will be celebrated in Latin, but the readings will be in English and Spanish. Other prayers will be recited in a selection of languages, including Benedict’s native German.
Pope Francis will celebrate the Mass and preach the homily. He will be assisted by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, the dean of the College of Cardinals, and other bishops and cardinals. Benedict XVI celebrated the Mass for his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, in 2005 as dean of the college of cardinals.
Some aspects of a papal funeral Mass will remain. Benedict will be buried with the coins and medals minted during his pontificate along with his palliums, the liturgical vestment reserved for the pope and a few high-ranking clergy. A cylinder containing a short description in Latin of Benedict’s papacy, called rogito, will also be placed within the coffin.
The staff usually carried by the reigning pope, called ferula, will not be interred with Benedict’s remains. The retired pontiff’s fisherman’s ring, a symbol of papal authority, has already been destroyed and will also not be placed in the coffin.
His cypress casket will be carried outside of the basilica at 8:45 a.m., when clergy and faithful will recite the rosary for the deceased pope emeritus. According to the Vatican, Benedict asked that his funeral Mass be “simple, solemn, but sober.” Roughly 60,000 people are expected to attend the ceremony, which will begin at 9:30 a.m.
Only Germany and Italy will send official delegations, led by President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and President Sergio Mattarella respectively. The Italian government announced it will be flying flags at half-staff to honor Benedict’s death. Representatives from other countries all over the world, including Belgium, Spain, Poland, Portugal and Hungary, will be attending.
U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Joe Donnelly will represent the United States at the funeral and all seven U.S. cardinals will be present.
After the Mass, the coffin will be brought to the Vatican grottoes where popes are usually buried and there will be a final private ceremony for close relatives and friends. Following tradition for papal burials, the coffin will be placed within a zinc casket and then within a wooden one.