How Pope Emeritus Benedict’s funeral presents unprecedented challenge

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For the first time in 600 years, the Vatican is planning a historic event: The funeral of a former pope. 

Benedict took the unusual step in 2013 to retire after almost eight years, citing his physical and mental health. Typically, popes serve until death, and Benedict is the first pope since the 1400s to leave office alive.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI died Saturday at 95.

The Roman Catholic Church has about 1.3 billion members worldwide, and the funeral for Pope John Paul II in 2005 drew an estimated 4 million people to Rome and Vatican City, which experts say may have been the largest-ever gathering of Christians.

It’s unclear, however, whether a former pope would receive the same honors as a pope who died in office.

“There is no script for this, and people in the Vatican are on the edge because they want to send a signal of respect to him and his followers, and at the same time not disrespect the reigning pontiff,” said Massimo Faggioli, a professor of historical theology at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. “Such funeral has no precedent in Italy.”

How would Benedict’s funeral be conducted?

Typically, funerals for a pope are an elaborate affair, befitting his station as both God’s representative on Earth and the head of the nation-state Vatican City.

John Paul II’s 2005 death launched an elaborate series of ceremonies and viewings, including two celebrations of Mass, before he was buried. Benedict – at the time still known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – presided over the final Mass of Requiem, which experts say was likely the most watched funeral in history to date.

Papal funerals typically draw heads of state from around the world, and President Joe Biden, who is Catholic, had met previously with Benedict. But it’s unclear whether the funeral of a former pope would draw as many high-profile attendees. Sitting popes have presided over the funeral rites of other senior clergy, so it’s possible Francis would preside over his predecessor’s service.

What does a pope’s funeral normally look like?

After the pope’s death, a formal set of practices codified by the 1996 document “Universi Dominici Gregis” – Of the Lord’s Whole Flock – prompts formal notifications, the sealing of his rooms and papers, and the destruction of the papal signet ring. Benedict’s ring was marked with a chiseled cross upon his retirement.

Papal funerals typically draw millions of mourners to Rome, and the funeral of John Paul was also televised live. 

Church doctrine calls for the deceased pope to be buried between the fourth and sixth day after his death, unless there are extenuating circumstances. Popes are not autopsied. Funeral rites are celebrated for nine consecutive days after his death.

After a sitting pope dies, the church’s cardinals gather in a conclave to select a successor, burning special paper to emit white smoke. That won’t happen in this case because there’s already a sitting pope.

What is a pope emeritus?

While unusual, a papal retirement is not unprecedented.

Catholic church law requires a papal resignation be “freely and properly manifested” — as was the case when Benedict unexpectedly announced his resignation at the Vatican in February 2013.

Immediately upon retirement, Benedict left the Vatican for several months while cardinals selected and installed Francis. Benedict then returned to the Vatican, no longer a pope or cardinal. Instead, he asked to be known as Father Benedict, and has lived a quiet life ever since. He has been living at a monastery on the Vatican grounds since stepping down nine years ago. 

Francis has visited him regularly since his retirement, but Benedict plays no formal role within the church.

Could Pope Francis also step down?

Some Vatican-watchers had worried that Benedict’s retirement could potentially split the church, with partisans favoring him over the new pope, Francis. But that never appears to have happened, and his death and funeral could end that kind of speculation for good. 

Francis upon taking office in 2013 pre-wrote a resignation letter, in case he was ever incapacitated. Francis has previously lauded Benedict’s decision to step down due to advancing age.

Francis, who turned 86 in December, had surgery in 2021 to repair a bowel narrowing and has been hobbled by knee pain that for months saw him use a wheelchair. Lately he has used a cane instead to get around in public.

However, in an interview with Spanish newspaper ABC in December, Francis noted: “One governs with the head, not the knee.”

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