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Rituals for the death of Benedict XVI could serve as a model for future ex-popes

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By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – When Pope Gregory XII, the last pope to resign before Benedict XVI, died in 1417, the world was not watching.

Gregory had resigned two years earlier, in 1415, and spent his remaining days in virtual obscurity hundreds of miles from Rome. He was discreetly buried in Recanati, a town near the north coast of the Adriatic.

It will be very different with the passing of 95-year-old Benedict XVI, who, according to the Vatican, is in serious but stable condition after a sudden deterioration in his health over Christmas.

The Vatican has elaborate rituals for what happens after a reigning pope dies, but none publicly known for a former pope.

After Benedict’s death, the Vatican will be, at least partially, scripting new protocols. They could be a role model for other popes who choose to step down rather than rule for life, including Pope Francis himself someday, Vatican sources say.

Those for a reigning pope include a 30-page constitution called “Universi Dominici Gregis”, Latin for “The shepherd of all the Lord’s flock” and “Ordo Exsequiarum Romani Pontificis” (funeral rites for a Roman pontiff), a missal of over of 400 pages that includes liturgy, music and prayers.

These rules say that a pope’s burial must take place between four and six days after his death, as part of a nine-day period of mourning known as Novendiale.

Vatican officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss such matters, said the script for Benedict’s death would depend on two main elements: whether Benedict himself left any instructions and decisions that will be taken by Pope Francis.

SOLEMN FAREWELL

Francis has always praised his predecessor as a great pope who had the courage to resign, so he would probably like to give Benedict the most solemn ceremonial send-off possible, perhaps even all the works, a Vatican official said.

The last pope to die, John Paul II, was buried on April 8, 2005, six days after his death. His body was first laid in state in the frescoed Clementine Hall for Vatican staff and then moved to St. Peter’s Basilica to be viewed by the public.

Millions of people queued for hours to see him in perhaps the biggest event in Vatican history, and monarchs and presidents attended his funeral.

He was first buried in crypts under St Peter’s Basilica and moved in 2011 to a chapel on the main level of Christendom’s largest church.

Many people would like to pay homage to Benedict XVI, who succeeded John Paul II in 2005 and resigned in 2013, so a period of tenure would be likely, the sources said.

In 2020, Benedict’s authorized biographer Peter Seewald reportedly told the Bavarian newspaper Passauer Neue Presse that the pope emeritus had prepared a spiritual will stating that he wanted to be buried in the same crypt where John Paul II was originally laid to rest.

Benedict XVI, like Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, presided over John Paul II’s 2005 funeral in St. Peter’s Square and Francis is expected to preside over Benedict’s.

After the death of a reigning pope, the person in charge of ordinary affairs in the Vatican until the election of a new pope is the camerlengo, or chamberlain.

The position is currently held by Irish-American Cardinal Kevin Farrell, but as the Church has one pope and there will be no conclave to elect another, Farrell would have no role.

Most of the work, including scripting an event unprecedented in Vatican history, will be handled by Monsignor Diego Ravelli, the papal master of ceremonies.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)

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