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What happens when the Pope dies?

See also:
 The Pope & Papacy
 Catholic Pages Directory: Pope & Papacy
 Catholic Pages Directory: Papal Elections

The pope is dead. When these urgent words are wired throughout the world, when every news agency worldwide interrupts programming with the announcement of these four words, a sense of wonderment and curiosity about papal Rome takes hold of people everywhere. Our eyes turn to the Vatican for a peek into the ancient ceremonies soon to be relived, the ceremonies surrounding the death and burial of the pope: the calling of the Conclave of Cardinal-Electors and the installation of the successor to the See of Peter. Tu es Petrus! From the burial to the election, the Church is without Peter. The Holy Spirit guides her, through the Sacred College. It is in these moments, the Sede Vacante, that the true significance of the role of the cardinal in the Church is most evident. What may have been viewed as an honorific or gift of gratitude for years of service to the Church is quickly reduced, theologically, to the real foundation of their existence.

The cardinals must open themselves to the grace of the Holy Spirit, as never before in their priestly lives, for it is the Spirit through them, his agents, who elevates to the throne of the Vicar of Christ, the one and only candidate whom Christ wishes to guide His Church on Earth.

The pope is dead. Very little has changed throughout history when these words are spoken. Certainly the modern advancements of each new age contribute their own mystique to the mysteries surrounding the death of a pope. In our own age, modern medicine made it possible to alert the world that the end was near for Paul VI. As the use of medicine became more accurate, the actual certainty of the death of the pope was confirmed. The last hours of recent popes have been made more restful than those of their predecessors because of better medical care. Despite all these modern appointments, death for a pope incorporates a prescribed formula of ceremony that is hundreds of years old and that is not easily laid aside, regardless of advancements of science.

Whereas the lovable John Paul I, Albino Luciano, died so suddenly, which sent the imagination of the world's writers astray, it is best to leave him aside and study his predecessor, Paul VI, still familiar to most of us. Paul died at Castel Gandolfo [the papal summer residence near Rome] in the late evening of August 6, 1978. His mentor, Pius XII, likewise died there. Paul's death was not unexpected. The Papal Household had made all the necessary preparations, and the Cardinal-Secretary of State, the Prefect of the Papal Household, and other senior officials of his court were present at his bedside when he entered eternity. The first news of his death came when pilgrims standing vigil outside the papal villa witnessed the age-old custom of closure. The Swiss Guard barred the entrance to the courtyard by hanging a heavy black chain across the doorway. Within minutes, the news was flashed to every news service. Vatican Radio, which broadcasts worldwide, interrupted its normal programming with the tearful announcement of the passing of the pope.

At the Vatican basilica, as the bell of the Arco delle Campani tolled the death knell, and as bells all over the city peeled in sorrow at the news of the pope's death, all officials of the Holy See lost their power and position. The Church, for all intents and purpose, came to a grinding halt. The See of Peter was empty. Cardinals had to be notified. Officially, the Camerlengo of the Church-the cardinal who had been nominated by the pope, prior to his death, to serve the Church during the Sede Vacante, as administrator rather than as head-assumed his temporary position over the Church.

The Camerlengo under Paul VI, the Frenchman Jean Cardinal Villot, was also the Secretary of State. His immediate tasks were to verify the death of the pope, to announce it to all the cardinals and summon them to Rome for the coming conclave, to notify the diplomatic missions accredited to the Holy See, and to prepare the funeral rites of the deceased pontiff. The funeral of Paul VI was the first of its kind in the history of the Church, as much of the ceremony and pageantry attached to this rite was abolished during his pontificate. Paul was clear in his wishes: He wanted to be buried in simplicity. The Camerlengo's role was to honor those wishes yet to remember that it was the pope, not a simple priest, that he was burying.

The body was vested in the white simar of the pope, the white alb, cincture, and amice. The modern pectoral cross, which Paul VI favored, was hung over his chest, and a red-and-gold chasuble for burial, which is the sole privilege of the popes, was placed on the body. On his head was placed the golden mitre, again the privilege of the popes. [All other prelates are buried in the white mitre.] Around his neck was the pallium, symbolizing his universal authority. His body was laid in state in the Hall of the Swiss Guard at Castel Gandolfo, where the villagers and pilgrims could come to pay their respects. The body was guarded through the night by the Swiss Guard and by members of the Papal Household who had gathered to pray. Paul's remains were laid in a simple wooden box of a beggar at his own request. In the morning, three Franciscans came to chant the Office of the Dead before the body began the ceremonial transfer to Rome. Nine million people around the world watched the procession as it made its way through the Castelli district outside Rome. "Seven motorcycle police led the procession of cars as it filed through the villa's Gate of the Moor. About thirty cars bearing those dearest to the Pope followed the hearse as it traveled about twenty-five miles an hour along the Via Appia Nuova." Its first stop was not St. Peter's but St. John Lateran, the basilica of the Bishop of Rome. The cardinal-vicar of Rome, who, along with the members of the Apostolic Penitentiary and the nuncios throughout the world, were the only officials remaining in power during the Sede Vacante, as decreed by canon law.

The vicar for Rome prayed the Office of the Dead while the body remained inside the hearse. With the office complete and a final farewell with a blessing of holy water given, the procession continued on to St. Peter's.

As the hearse entered the square, the Swiss Guard and Italian honor guard snapped into a salute. "Forty Cardinals dressed in bright red and carrying lighted candles put the coffin at the steps of the world's largest Church. Accompanied by Cardinals, by lines of white surpliced priests, by black-robed Third Order Franciscan confessors and by his family, Pope Paul's body was carried into St. Peter's ."

In the days immediately following the death of Paul VI, many hectic moments caused frustration inside the Vatican. One such event was the fact that no deacon could be found in the city of Rome. The officials of the Prefecture of the Papal Household called the national colleges and seminaries in Rome. It was the height of summer and all those who could get away, had done so. No deacon could be found. Finally, with hands thrown into the air, someone of the prefecture staff asked the Pontifical North American College to appoint one of the newly ordained priests, still present in Rome, to serve as a deacon for the solemn liturgy of the reception of the deceased into the basilica. For this young priest [Fr Stephen DiGiovanni], it was the honor of a lifetime.

The Novendiales could thus begin. For nine days, masses were offered in St. Peter's and the basilicas and churches of Rome for the deceased. The body was removed from the simple cypress coffin and once again placed on view at the Confession of St. Peter. Vatican Radio estimated that 10,000 persons an hour passed the bier of the deceased pope to pay their respects.

Whereas twenty-four ten-foot candles surrounded the bier of his predecessors, Paul requested only one Paschal candle. The contrast was notable. Whereas all the funerals of his predecessors had been held inside the basilica for a much smaller number, Paul wished his funeral to be held outdoors so that as many persons who wished to attend, could. The ceremony was carried on live television worldwide to an estimated home audience of sixty million people.

After the solemn obsequies, as prescribed by the rite of burial, had concluded, Paul was laid inside the basilica, alongside his predecessors, in a crypt he had chosen for himself. He wished to be buried in the earth rather than in a sarcophagus. His remains were lowered into a vault below the floor of the crypt. A simple, elegant marble marker designates the place where he now rests.

Paul VI made many changes in the Church, changes that directly affected the faithful and that also affected the governing body of the Church as well as the Sacred College. He did not institute changes that would not affect himself and his successors. Pope John Paul I, whose brief pontificate touched the hearts of all the world, likewise hoped for the simplicity of Paul VI's death and burial. The precedence that was set by these two pontificates is impossible to overlook, yet unlikely to be altered in the near future. This more simplified and dignified burial of the Roman Pontiff has probably taken its place as the proper formula for consigning dead popes to history and their souls to eternity. To offer a historical comparison, until 1978, all pontiffs were subject in death to a series of rituals and ceremonies reminiscent of the early Renaissance, where they had taken root.

The pope is dead. These words reverberated icily throughout the Italian peninsula in past pontificates. The popes were powerful, more for their temporal authority than for their spiritual authority. The court that surrounded them was isolated, and the death of the pope set into motion a court mechanism unrivaled in royal Europe.

Other men die in darkness, in confusion, and amid tears; the Pope, alone in the world, dies in ceremony Next to the room where he is dying the high dignitaries of the official family form a guard of honor. Around his bed are grouped the resident Cardinals of Rome, standing among them, the Cardinal-Grand Penitentiary, in accordance with his duties, aids the dying Pope."

In past ages, a dying pope was expected to preach his final assessment of his Church and, if strong enough in his last hours to do so, to signify whom he thinks worthy to succeed him on the chair of Peter. This advice, although always sought, was seldom accepted. The entire court of the papacy gathered to watch the pope die. Cardinals quickly made their way from the surrounding cities; others were hastily notified in hopes that they, too, could reach Rome prior to the death of the pope and the formal entrance into conclave.

After the pope drew his last breath, a doctor was called forth to pronounce the death; in some pontificates, no more than a mirror was used to detect breath. To be certain of death, the Church had its own formula: The Cardinal-Camerlengo of the Church would come forward. All others would drop back behind him while he removed from a small red leather bag a small silver mallet engraved with the arms of the deceased. Three times the Camerlengo would gently tap the forehead of the deceased pope as if to say, "Get up!" With each tap, he would call out, in the pope's native tongue, the name given to him at baptism, the name his mother whispered to him as a child. It was thought that no man could remain asleep at the sound of his baptismal or childhood name. Assured of death, the Camerlengo would announce, "The Pope is dead." From that moment, the reverent silence of the Vatican vanished as a flurry of activity began in preparation for the burial and coming conclave.

The body was dressed in state with the red and gold chasuble and the fanon of white silk and gold thread. In former times, the body was always carried to the small Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament on the right side of the basilica, midway up the great nave. He was laid in state for two days, for without embalming it was not possible to view the body any longer. At the appointed time, the body was carried in great solemnity to the High Altar for the Mass of the Dead. "Immediately after the general absolution, the body was placed in triple coffins; cypress, lead, and elm, at the side of which stand the chief priest of the Basilica and the Cardinal Camerlengo. Two veils of silk were placed over the face and hands of the pontiff. A great clanking re-echoed from chapel to chapel; it was caused by the taps of the coffin which was being sealed, and crossed with violet ribbons.

Even to this day, three coffins are used. The first, made of cypress, like Paul VI's, is to signify that even the popes are human and are buried like common men. The second, of lead, bears the name of the pontiff, the dates of his pontificate, and copies of the documents of profound importance issued under his seal. The broken seal of office is placed within the lead coffin by the Camerlengo prior to final closure. Finally, the third coffin, made of elm, the most precious of local woods available in Rome, is used to signify the great dignity of the man being laid to his rest. Thanks to this ancient custom, many early documents of the Church have been conserved.
Once the body is sealed within its final coffin, with only the deceased pontiff's family and immediate household present to attend him, he is lowered into the crypt below St. Peter's, through the Confession of St. Peter, where the sanpietrini place the heavy cargo on a wagon, to be wheeled to the place the pontiff chose himself for his final resting place. Soon after, a sarcophagus would be fashioned by one of the great artists of the era, marking the grave site for all time.

The pope's vicar for Vatican City, at one time also known as the papal sacristan, has the honor of remaining behind all the others to recite the Office of the Dead and to give one last final blessing to the deceased's remains. At that moment, those persons holding titles or honors bestowed for the duration of the pope's lifetime lose them, returning, at least for a time, to their former status, hoping that the successor to the See of Peter will rename them to their posts. Mourning also ended officially, as the Vatican prepared for the Novendiales and the coming conclave.

[This is an extract from the book "The Church Visible: The Ceremonial Life and Protocol of the Roman Catholic Church" by James-Charles Noonan, Jr. (1996) pp.24-28.]





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