VATICAN CITY — Benedict XVI broke with tradition when he became the first pope in six centuries to abdicate, and his funeral — scheduled for Thursday in St. Peter’s Square — will set new precedents, too.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said Benedict’s funeral would be “simple,” with only two formal delegations attending: from Italy and from the former pope’s native Germany.
Simple is not typically a word associated with the funerals of sitting popes. The Mass for John Paul II lasted three hours and was at the time the largest attended funeral in history. The guidelines for papal funerals are laid out in a 400-page Vatican handbook: “Funeral Rites of the Roman Pontiff.”
But the Vatican is now having to determine which of those funeral traditions should apply to an ex-pope.
“Rites and ceremonies after the death of a reigning pope are clear and already well elaborated,” said Ulrich Nersinger, who studies the Vatican and has worked for the papal ceremonial office. “The big problem is: What do you do if it’s a pope emeritus who dies? That’s a new experience.”
The last pope to abdicate was Gregory XII in 1415. But church historians say that case doesn’t offer a helpful precedent for modern times. The position of pope was more of a political office then, said Massimo Faggioli, a Villanova University professor of theology. And Gregory XII followed a very different path than Benedict after stepping down in 1415, amid a historic schism within the church. Whereas Benedict kept his name, continued to wear papal white and retired to a monastery within Vatican City, Gregory assumed his previous name, Angelo, and moved away from the Vatican to the town of Ancona. It is Benedict’s mourning period and funeral that will more likely set the precedent for future popes who retire.
Nersinger suggested that some direction may come from Benedict’s last will and testament, but much will also depend on the decisions of Francis.
Here’s what we know so far.