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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
Paddy Agnew

Vatican keen to strike right tone for the funeral of Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI

Chairs outside St Peter’s Basilica in preparation for the funeral of Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI today. Photo: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

Today’s funeral of Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, in a ceremony celebrated by Pope Francis in the Vatican, represents a delicate balancing act for the mandarins of the Holy See.

Their task, and that of Pope Francis, is to ensure that Benedict, who died last Saturday aged 95, be buried with all the pomp, circumstance and honour befitting a devout man who was once pope while leaving no doubts in any minds that he has not, in any way, been pope since his astonishing resignation in 2013.

Benedict’s funeral, due to be celebrated in the Basilica of St Peter this morning, looks, at first glance, almost identical to the intense and emotional funeral of St John Paul II in 2005. In reality, though, as Holy See figures have reminded us this week, there are many differences.

For a start, when a pope dies, the bells in St Peter’s are rung to mark his passing.

This did not happen last weekend but, rather, on the evening of February 28, 2013, when Pope Benedict flew out of the Vatican in a white helicopter bound for the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo, on his last official day as pope.

Another of the rituals which traditionally mark the death of a pope, namely the destruction of the papal ring, known as the Fisherman’s Ring, did not happen last weekend, but rather back in 2013 immediately after the resignation.

Furthermore, when John Paul II’s body was moved to St Peter’s in 2005 to allow the faithful to pay their respects, it was done by the light of day in an impressive procession, with the late pope laid out on a crimson platform accompanied by Swiss Guards and the singing of the Litany of the Saints.

In contrast, Benedict’s “transfer” from the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery in the Vatican gardens to the Basilica in the pre-dawn dark of last Monday morning saw his body moved by hearse, accompanied by a small party of his household, including private secretary Georg Ganswein, before it entered the basilica by a small side door, rather than the main entrance steps.

Even today’s funeral mass bears minor, yet significant changes from the mass celebrated for John Paul II. Above all, in his prayers Francis will consign “the Emeritus Pope Benedict”, not “Pope Benedict”, to the “merciful love of God”.

To most of us, these could seem like meaningless, tiny details.

For the Holy See, they set out permanent and indelible markers regarding the canonical and historical status of Benedict.

Yet, many, if not all, of the traditional rituals of a pope’s funeral will be respected today.

For example, Benedict will be buried in that special, three-tier coffin of cypress wood, lead and elm wood, always used for popes.

Similarly, copies of all the medals and coins minted during his pontificate as well as his “rogito”, a brief account of his papacy, will be placed in the coffin, as with all popes.

On top of that, Benedict’s body has, as in the case of many other popes, been embalmed using the “thanatopraxis” technique that was used for John Paul II.

In the Eternal City itself, things are very different from the tumultuous scenes that marked 2005.

If 130,000 people have filed past Benedict’s body during this holiday week, more than 600,000 visited John Paul II on the three days of his lying in state.

Furthermore, an estimated two million people swarmed in and around the Vatican on the day of the latter’s funeral.

Today’s attendance seems sure to be much smaller.

While the Makers and Shakers of 2005, including three US presidents (George Bush, George W Bush and Bill Clinton) and many other heads of state attended that funeral, there will be only two “official” delegations today, those of Germany and Italy, to mark Bavarian Benedict’s two “home countries”.

Ireland will be represented by the Catholic Primate, Archbishop Eamon Martin, and by the Archbishop of Dublin, Dermot Farrell, as well as by the Irish Ambassador to the Holy See, Frances Collins.

In accordance with the strict wishes of the Vatican, all delegations have been limited.

Benedict’s death clearly represents a moment of genuine sorrow and loss for those many Catholics (and others) who admired his resolute defence of traditional Catholic teaching and values.

Yet, the suspicion that this funeral has become a sort of social media event struck your correspondent yesterday when I paid my respects to Benedict in St Peter’s.

As the “mourners” thronged past, one had the impression that many of them might well be tourists, in Rome for one of the busiest holiday weeks of the year.

My own ad hoc survey of those queuing up on Monday morning estimates that 80pc of those interviewed said they were paying their respects because they “just happened to be in Rome” on their holidays.

A final thought. For much of the last nine years of Benedict’s “Emeritus” papacy, the Catholic world has been worried there might have been a rivalry or a conflict of interest between the “two popes”.

Just as Benedict is about to be buried, that thought returned as private secretary Ganswein, in an interview with German Catholic paper, Die Tagespost, told us that Benedict’s heart had been “broken” by Francis’s 2021 Motu Proprio (edict) “Traditionis custodes” which limited the use of the Latin mass.

That story, too, will run and run.

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