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What happens when a former pope dies?

December 31, 2022

The death of former Pope Benedict XVI has thrown up speculation about the funeral arrangements for a pope who has resigned — an (almost) unprecedented case. DW unpacks the possibilities.

German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger blesses the coffin of Pope John Paul II during his funeral mass in St Peter's Square at the Vatican City 08 April 2005.
There are extensive and detailed rules and regulations for when a Pope dies but none for a Pope EmeritusImage: Patrick Hertzog/AFP/Getty Images

When Pope Francis called for prayers for his predecessor and neighbor Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on Wednesday, December 28, mentioning that he was "very ill," Vatican watchers around the world began wondering: What happens now?

With the former pope's death on Saturday, that question became even more pressing.

"This is a completely new situation, it's all very speculative — it's difficult to know, even for people who know are well-versed," said Ulrich Nersinger, German journalist and author of several books on the Vatican and its history.

It has been several centuries since the last time a pope retired before his death, and while there are protocols honed over millennia of tradition for the death of a reigning pope, Benedict's status in the Vatican after his retirement in 2013 presents certain problems. Though other popes have given up their roles, it is unprecedented in church history that a pope would stay on in the Vatican after stepping down.

Church historian Alberto Melloni said that formally speaking at least, Benedict XVI's funeral arrangements would be relatively straightforward. "The funeral for a pope emeritus is the funeral for the bishop emeritus of Rome," he told the AP news agency, adding that dioceses around the world have long resolved how to honor retired bishops.

New scripts

But many observers feel that the arrangements for 95-year-old Josef Ratzinger, the name Benedict XVI was born with, will require at least some improvisation. "One thing we can say is it won't happen as it would for a deceased pope," said Nersinger. Certain ancient rituals, he told DW, like the official pronouncement of the pope's death, and the sealing of the pope's rooms, probably won't take place.

"Then there is the question of how the pope will be laid in state," he added. "And certain details are very important: When a deceased pope is laid out, he is dressed in pontifical robes, and the papal pallium — and I don't think he will be accorded that."

Similarly, the nine-day period of mourning, known as the Novendiale, during which the pope is laid out so that ordinary mourners can line up to pay their respects, is only supposed to be for a reigning pope. "That's supposed to be a kind of preparation for the conclave [when a new pope would be chosen], and we won't be having that," said Nersinger. "I know the papal masters of ceremonies have tried to develop plans, but a lot will depend on what Benedict himself has set out in his will."

Popes differ in style, but not in substance

Benedict's testament

Benedict's official biographer, Peter Seewald, told the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper in 2020 that the retired pope had written a testament, to be published after his death, stating that he wanted to be buried in the same crypt where his Polish predecessor John Paul II was originally laid to rest.

But few other details have emerged beyond that, and much will also depend on the role that Pope Francis chooses to take. "Pope Francis is a very spontaneous person," Nersinger said. "He could say something new shortly before."

The papal relationship

The relationship between the current pope and the ex-pope, living in relatively close proximity in the Vatican for the last nine years, has itself been the subject of much speculation (as well as one Oscar-nominated movie).

While Benedict has often underlined his obedience to and "deep communion and friendship" with his successor, and Francis has referred to Benedict as his "brother," there are well-known differences between the two men.

27.8.2022, Vatikan, Pope Francis and the 20 new cardinals present in Rome visited Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI
The relationship between the current pope and the ex-pope, living in relatively close proximity in the Vatican, has been the subject of much speculationImage: abaca/picture alliance

"They are very different characters, from very different cultural circles, and they have different theological viewpoints," said Nersinger. "They have met every now and then, for example when Francis appointed new cardinals then he would often visit Benedict with the new cardinal. But I don't think they would sit together and chat about theology."

Some have wondered whether certain decisions that Benedict made on his retirement may have exacerbated frictions between the two: He famously continued to wear the papal white robes, kept the title of pope (albeit with emeritus inserted), and kept the papal mode of address "Holy Father."

"These are points that created a lot of discontent, and confused a few followers," said Nersinger. "And I think Benedict didn't see what negative consequences that would have, and there are a lot of people who tried to play the two popes off against each other."

The fact that Benedict is more formal by nature, and made much fewer political pronouncements during his papacy, also created a certain amount of tension. "Personally, I think the move he took was not a good move," said Nersinger. "If you take a step like that, you have to withdraw completely."

Some church observers have said that Benedict's decision to retire has created a precedent that may well be followed by Francis, himself now 86 and suffering his own health problems. But Nersinger disagrees — partly because of the political tensions he has experienced. "Also I think he enjoys being pope too much to just retire like that," he said.

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Edited by Astrid Prange and Rina Goldenberg

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight