It’s not often a reviewer has an opportunity to cast a critical eye across a papal funeral, although in the bizarre times in which we live having two Popes on the go at once is a help. Prior to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI who died this New Year’s Eve, the seat of the Bishop of Rome was held by John Paul II who passed in 2005 after a record and funeral review busting 27 years as head of the Catholic church. Before that, like busses with Senatus Populusque Romanus painted on the side, two came along at once with the death of John Paul I on 28th September 1978 following Pope Paul VI’s passing only a month previously. Their predecessor, John XXIII, died in June 1963 when this reviewer of papal funerals was only months old. That’s only 5 funerals in 60 years, although there was very nearly a change to the schedule in May 1981 when John Paul I survived being shot in St Peter’s square by would-be assassin Mehmet Ali Ağca.
Another near miss occurred in 1995. A bomb meant for the former Karol Wojtyła, Cardinal of Krakow exploded prematurely in the street next to the Apostolic Nunciature during his visit to Manila. Amongst the noise, gunfire, fireworks and chaos of an ordinary Malate evening, nobody noticed.
Since Benedict’s resignation in February 2013, the church has had the novelty of two living Popes with the former Cardinal Ratzinger being titled Pope Emeritus. Novel since the late 14th century when difficult-to-get-on-with Urban VI obliged his cardinals to elect Clement VII and set up a rival papacy in a rival court.
Throughout these last ten years, Pope Francis has described the Pope Emeritus as a grandfather figure. Although it might sound preposterous that a Pope can have a living grandfather, when 82-year-old football legend Pele died this time last week following a long illness, he left behind a grieving mother, centenarian Celeste Arantes. Remarkable times indeed.
Was Benedict XVI a Catholic? Yes, and a deeply religious theological scholar too. More at home with his books than with the politicking inside or outside the Vatican, a phrase from a 2010 papal visit sermon in Glasgow sticks in the mind, “self-destructive and arbitrary freedoms”. For Benedict was an absolutist committed to the original Christian texts and the teaching of the church, not to the relativism of the modern day and its obsession with so-called rights and freedoms. For the 95-year-old, wrongs were righted through moral certainty and the sacred moments of confession, repentance and absolution.
During the service, QT review HQ relied upon delicious HD pictures from Vatican TV and commentary in English from EWTN, presented by the lush Catherine Hadro who is to Eternal Word Television Network what Liz Willis (a former Miss Auburn, Alabama) is to Trump rally broadcasters Right Side News Network.
The subtitles were wonderfully wrong. If this weren’t a funeral I would make more of the mishearings. ‘Christ have mercy’ just about understandably appeared as ‘coffee and tea’. Later there was a genuinely inexplicable ‘search for Ali’s batteries’.
As for the coverage, it showed a crowded St Peter’s Square with over 100,000 worshippers in attendance. 200,000 are reported to have filed past the coffin when it laid in state, a number reduced by the fake media to ‘thousands’. The weather forecast had been for a sunny 10C winter’s morning with only a 5% chance of rain. Fortunately, the rain did keep away however a foggy Rome saw the cupola of the dome of St Peter’s disappear into mist as though appropriately reaching into heaven itself.
Facing the frontage of the basilica, clergy were seated to the left and dressed in white vestments with red stoles around their necks. Included were 3,900 priests and 450 bishops who were to concelebrate the mass. To the right and behind sat the laity with VIPs accommodated directly beside the altar. As Benedict was no longer the head of state of Vatican City at the time he died, this was not a state event. Such high-level representatives were only invited from Italy and the Pope’s native Germany. Other heads of state attended in a private capacity. These included the Queen of Belgium, King and Queen of Spain and Puffin’s favourite Victor Orban, prime minister of Hungary. The United Kingdom Government sent Gillian Keegan, Secretary of State for Education. Perhaps the funeral of a Pope in St Peter’s Square at Christmas time and a day before Epiphany still wasn’t quite Catholic enough to dispatch Jacob Rees-Mogg?
Others could observe proceedings via an overflow outside of the Vatican City along the Via Della Conciliazione and within Bernini’s curved Doric collonade that holds the Obelisk of St Peter at its centre. Originally from Heliopolis, Emporer Augustus liberated the 84ft high single-carved stone to Roman-controlled Alexandria. Caligula later moved it to Rome. Pope Sixtus V relocated it to St Peter’s Square as recently as 1586.
On this day, a Christmas tree and a wooden representation of the nativity stood nearby. The tree is a 30-meter-high silver fir from the Italian village of Rosello in the region of Abruzzo, decorated by residents of a nearby psychiatric rehabilitation centre. The nativity, containing life-sized hand-carved figures, is of cedar wood from Sutrio.
During the service, Pope Francis appeared in a wheelchair concealed by his flowing red vestments. At times he stood with the aid of a stick. The proceedings were officiated over by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, Dean of the College of Cardinals. Swiss Guards dressed in blue and yellow striped doublets and armed with ceremonial pikes looked on.
The first reading, of a service which would be the same as for any other ordinary Catholic, was in Spanish and from the book of Isaiah. It was followed by Psalm 23, The Lord is My shepherd, sung in Latin as a psalm, rather than as the usual hymn to Jessie Seymour Irvine’s familiar composure Crimond.
The first letter of St Peter followed and was read in N’orn Irish. Did the lady say “kept for yous in heaven”? I think she maybe did.
The Gospel was taken from St Luke and reminded us of the story of Jesus on the cross flanked by two criminals. One unapologetically mocks Christ but the other repents with the immortal line, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.” After which a darkness came across the countryside and Jesus died. The veil in the temple was torn as Jesus uttered his final words, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit,” and with these words, he breathed his last.
The homily was preached by Pope Francis during which Pope Benedict was mentioned by name only once. There were no biographical details other than the generalities of priestly vocation; devotion, trusting obedience, goodnesses struggle to prevail, the fruitfulness of prayer and adoration, the expectations of a pastor, a stubborn and patient hope, the nourishing of the flock. Holding fast to the Lord’s words and following in the steps of Jesus through whose merciful hands a colleague was being committed to the life eternal.
Francis ended his homily with the only mention of the deceased by name.
“Benedict, faithful friend of Jesus the Bridegroom may your joy be complete as you hear his voice both now and forever.”
After communion, the rites continued with a blessing and the commending of Benedict XVI to God. The coffin was lifted by 16 gentlemen dressed in dark suits with white shirts and crisp bow ties. They processed into St Peter’s Basilica itself for a private interment during which the wooden casket would be placed inside a zinc coffin, sealed and put within another wooden box before being left in the crypt.
As the curtain closed behind the cortege, another curtain opened. At the gates of Hades, Satan himself released the BBC Question Time team to torment us afresh, starting next Thursday.
© Always Worth Saying 2023