Hundreds of thousands of faithful went to pay homage to Benedict XVI. During the three days of display of the body of Benedict XVI, cardinals, bishops, and priests also came to pay tribute to one who was their Pope. Pope Francis, however, was not there. He was notified immediately after the death and visited the Mater Ecclesiae monastery, where Benedict XVI had resided. He remained there in prayer for a few minutes. But then he turned invisible again. As if the death of his predecessor didn’t concern him. As if the Pope, who, with his renunciation, had also paved the way for his successor’s election, should not be considered.
In the gestures and decisions of Pope Francis from the moment of Benedict’s death, one could read above all a need to differentiate, to demonstrate that Benedict XVI was only the Pope Emeritus and not the reigning Pope.
In reality, to do this, it was enough to follow the Vatican ceremonial. Because the funeral of Benedict XVI is the second half of a ceremony that began almost ten years ago, on February 28, 2013, with the beginning of the sede vacante. On that occasion, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, then the Holy Roman Church camerlengo, presided over the initiation rite of the vacant see, breaking the fisherman’s ring and sealing the papal apartment.
However, with Benedict XVI’s death, there was no vacant see. And therefore, the Camerlengo was not called to take power because the Pope was in office in his fullness.
It was the Pope, or the Secretariat of State, who first had to be informed of the death of the Pope Emeritus and who had to certify his death. And it was, therefore, up to the Secretariat of State to manage all the organization of the funeral, from the announcement of the death – communicated through the Press Office of the Holy See – to the invitation to diplomatic delegations.
It was, therefore, the funeral of a pope, which, however, took place in a sede plena and not in a sede vacante. Some choices were a logical consequence of this. Benedict XVI did not wear the Pope’s red shoes, but black shoes, for example. The Vatican bells were not rung to announce his death because it was not the death of an incumbent Pope. The pleas of the diocese of Rome and the Eastern Churches were not read because they concerned a reigning Pope and not a Pope emeritus.
Other decisions, however, immediately appeared challenging to interpret. Pope Francis continued with his calendar of celebrations as if nothing had happened. The celebration of the Te Deum and the Mass of January 1 are appointments that cannot be postponed. But the general audience of January 4 could have been delayed, just as the Pope could have also postponed a visit to the Christmas tree and Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square.
He didn’t. He decided that there was to be no mourning in the Vatican, even on the day of the funeral of the Pope Emeritus, even if the employees who chose to go to the funeral were exempt from punching their time card. With the idea that Benedict XVI wanted a sober funeral, diplomats were asked not to wear tails (black tie) but tenue de ville (dark business suits). No official delegations were foreseen; therefore, royals and heads of state who participated did so in a personal capacity, except for Italy and Germany.
It almost seemed as if they wanted to discourage the participation of the States. Yet, delegations from 21 countries arrived, also protesting the treatment reserved for them and highlighting how, in reality, however sober it was intended to be, this funeral was not just about one person. It was about a Pope and a pontificate.
They were all actions that weakened the Holy See. Because the ceremonial is how we express ourselves, and a ceremonial that asks for a more informal dress code when the formal attire is required for each papal chapel (i.e., a celebration presided over by the Pope) testifies to a lack of consideration of who is celebrating. Similarly, a country with diplomatic relations that reduces diplomatic relations to personal relationships loses credibility.
The question, then, remains: did Francis fear Benedict? In public, Pope Francis has always had nice words for Benedict XVI, praising his work and highlighting some of his crucial commitments, such as the fight against abuses in the Church. Is it legitimate to think, then, that for Pope Francis, the presence of such a beloved Pope Emeritus was cumbersome and that he wanted to demonstrate with his choices that he was the only Pope?
It has been said that Pope Francis wanted to give a more pastoral angle in paying homage to Benedict XVI the pastor, since he mostly quoted Benedict XVI. However, this explanation does not seem in line with the personality of Pope Francis. Pope Francis is a Pope of gestures, and he knows their meanings. He knows that the Pope lives in public and not in private. He knows that everything that is or is not done is for a reason.
Another argument: conservatives attack Pope Francis because he has demythologized the Papacy. He has made it less potent with this pastoral approach. This argument also fails: it considers the Church a political body of a secular type and values a Pope who has the same concept of the Church. The Papacy is not mythicized: it has its language and way of being. When this language is not applied, then it ceases to exist. Thus, even a pastoral choice, if not thought out, creates a vulnerability that plays in favor of the enemies of the Church.
These are all things that the Pope knows, and that he cannot fail to understand.
Yet, Francis chooses to deliver a particularly cold homily, with only one mention of the Pope Emeritus. At the same time, at the end of the funeral, it seems as if the Pope did not want to move to accompany the coffin toward the Basilica. And it was in that brief, interminable pause, during which all were waiting for a sign to move, that the cry “Santo Subito” burst forth from the crowd. There was a banner, which had been kept hidden in an effort to be discreet as requested. That pause, however, gave way to an acclamation that could also become the universal acclamation of God’s people.
Every possible attempt, therefore, to lessen the impact of Benedict XVI has failed, colliding with the wall of faithful who have come from all over to be able to pay homage to their Pope.
A bittersweetness remains in the mouth because the death of Benedict XVI closes an era, and this era closes with a certain lack of consideration for languages and roles. Because pontifical language cannot be compared to secular language, we cannot speak, in these cases, of state funerals, because that is a secular concept, which cannot be fully applied to the ceremonial of the Holy See.
What is certain is that a Pope like Benedict XVI deserved better treatment and more significant consideration of the person and the pontificate. What caused fear of Benedict XVI is a mystery to be discovered. But there are probably mixed feelings, even prejudices against Benedict XVI, and a sacred reverence that prevented everyone from taking initiatives too daring.
Now, the balancer has gone, the Pope who tried to dialogue in harmony with everyone. With the renunciation, he opened a way. However, he also suffered greatly with his resignation and interceded for the Church.
He is loved and therefore feared. And yet, precisely this impoliteness is born in the face of a protocol to be defined because it is the first time a Pope celebrates for a Pope Emeritus (but not the first time that a Pope celebrates for a dead predecessor, it happened in 1802). True, Pope Francis was the first to go to the monastery. However, he was not there on all the other occasions, even at the burial. These decisions could prove, in some way, counterproductive for Pope Francis himself. And so, a pontificate much celebrated by the media could instead end as one of the least loved pontificates, no matter how many media campaigns are outlined to combat or nullify the effects of the so-called opponents.