Traditional Ceremonies Surrounding the Death of a Roman Pontiff

The following excerpt comes in translation, taken from the works of a notable nineteenth century liturgist, Msgr. Xavier Barbier de Montault, describing the traditional ceremonies that accompanied the death of a pope. Such rites are of course, infrequent, and they have also been modified in our time, and with the death of Benedict XVI, for many there was a natural curiosity surrounding the traditions in this regard. I can think of no better person to explain these ceremonies than the Monsignor, so we are pleased to present his summary and thank our reader for doing this translation.

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by Mgr Xavier Barbier de Montault

(Œuvres complètes, 1890)

The Funeral Rites of the Pope

Twenty-four hours after the pope’s death, the surgeons of the Apostolic Palace open the body to retrieve the organs and proceed with the embalming. In the case that the Pope died at the Quirinal Palace, the entrails, placed in an earthenware vase hermetically sealed, are interred at the parish church of Ss Vincent and Anastasius in Trevi, under the jurisdiction of which the Apostolic Palace finds itself.

In the evening, when the sun goes down, the particular chaplain of His Holiness and his train-bearer mount the carriage in which the urn containing the organs has been placed. Two footmen walk at the sides carrying torches. The parish priest, assisted by religious of his convent […], receives these venerable mortal remains at the door and, in the middle of the church, performs the Absolution of the Dead over them in the customary manner. The urn is then placed in a side aisle to the right of the church, added by Benedict XIV, and into a square niche carved into the wall. On both sides of the altar, Latin inscriptions recall the names of the Popes whose innards rest in this place, from Sixtus V to Gregory XVI. […]

The Pope’s body having been embalmed, it is dressed in a cassock of white wool, the rochet, the red cloth mozzetta, and the "camauro“ of the same material and colour. It is then exposed in the Room of the Secret Consistory beneath a canopy of red velvet, along the wall facing the windows. The penitentiaries of St Peter’s take their place around the funeral bed and recite psalms or prayers without break. The people are permitted to enter the palace and view the deceased until the evening of the second day after the Pope’s death.

At a night hour, that is, after sundown, the Pope is solemnly transferred to the Vatican Palace, or, if he died there, to the Sistine chapel to lie in state. The cortege follows the Papal route. The procession is opened by two Noble Guards and two trumpets, after whom follow two Papal equerries with burning torches; thirty palafrenieri each with a white burning torch in hand; the Captain of the Swiss Guard on a horse amidst his soldiers; a master of ceremonies also mounted and in purple cassock; then the Papal bier pulled by two mules [?], one in front and one behind, escorted by the penitentiaries of St Peter’s who continue reciting prayers in a low voice. The bier, in the form of a stretcher, is covered by a funeral pall, whereupon lies the Pope, his head resting on cushions. He wears his red slippers with a golden cross and is vested in the rochet and the mozzetta over the white cassock, without cross or stole, his head covered by the usual red cap. Above him is a square canopy with drapes hung by the centre. The bier is completely furnished in red velvet, trimmed with gold.

The Swiss Guard march at both sides, with their steel armour. There follows a company of the Noble Guard with its banners and standards tucked up. The cortege ends with a detachment of the Palatine Guard and a company of Dragoons, with swords lowered, each preceded by their trumpeters or drums. Finally, an artillery company of seven cannons, the artillerists carrying their guns over their shoulders.

The crowds gather along the entire route, which is illuminated by resin torches, eager for such a spectacle, and each time the procession passes a church, the bells are tolled as for funerals. In this manner, the corpse is borne to the entrance of the Vatican, where four penitentiaries receive it and take it to the Sistine Chapel to expose it on a parade bed.

The penitentiaries, having removed his ordinary dress, proceed to vest him in his Pontifical ornaments over the cassock and the rochet, and they place upon him amice, alb, cincture with the subcinctorium [l’aumônière], fanon, the tunicles, the red chasuble, the pallium and the mitre of golden cloth. Thus vested, the Pope is raised up in the middle of the chapel on an inclined platform atop a parade bed, which is surrounded by numerous torches of yellow wax. At his feet are the two pontifical hats of red velvet which figured in the ceremony of taking possession. Four Noble Guards, wearing mourning cockades, keep vigil at the four corners of the catafalque, around which the Swiss Guard form two lines. The penitentiaries of St Peter’s on either side, dressed in surplice and stole, send the whole night by the body and continue their prayers. Eight candles are lit on the screen closing the sanctuary, and six on the high altar, behind which is a tapestry showing the resurrection of Lazarus, topped off with a canopy of red velvet, trimmed and braided in gold. The Pontifical Throne, ordinarily placed on the Gospel side, is removed to express the vacancy of the Holy See.

In the morning of the following day, which is the third after his death, the clergy of the Vatican Basilica, the seminary, beneficiaries and canons, climb the royal stairs to the Sistine Chapel, holding lit torches. The cantors of the papal chapel intone the responsory "Subvenite Sancti Dei." One of the canons recites the versicles and prayers, dressed in a black cope, and performs the absolution, taking care to genuflect every time he passes before the body of the Pontiff. The penitentiaries having handed over the body to the canons, the procession to the Basilica begins in this order: – The cross of the Basilica between two acolytes holding burning candles

  • The Seminary of St Peter’s in purple cassock and cotta
  • Beneficiaries
  • Canons
  • Eight priests carrying the corpse of the Pontiff on a bier, while the canons hold the ends of the funeral pall
  • The mace-bearers with maces reversed
  • The Swiss Guard in gala uniform surrounding the body
  • The Cardinals in pairs, then the prelates in mourning dress, reciting psalms and prayers in a low voice prescribed for the occasion

Having arrived in the Basilica, the cortege stops in the middle of the great nave. The deceased is placed on a funeral bed, decorated with purple velvet drapes. The cardinals arrange themselves in two groups to the left and right. At the feet stand the cantors, who execute the Libera. Mgr Vicar capitular, vested in pontificals, black cope and white cloth mitre, performs the absolution according to the prescribed form. This ceremony being completed, the body is brought to the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, where it remains exposed for three whole days atop a raised platform, vested in Pontifical costume and in such a manner that the feet pass the grille that encloses the chapel can be easily kissed by the faithful. A considerable array of yellow wax lights illuminates the Pontiff and forms a shining chapel about him. On the interior side, the pontifical chaplains succeed one another keeping watch and praying by the body, while the Swiss Guard maintains order outside.

The Exequies for the Pope

The day after the corpse is publicly exposed in St Peter’s, the solemn exequies begin, which run for nine consecutive days. Every morning, the Cardinals and all those having a place at Papal Chapel assist at the solemn Requiem Mass, which is sung in the Choir Chapel at St Peter’s, where the canons habitually celebrate the Office. Opposite the grille, beneath the arcade connecting the great nave with the side aisle, a catafalque is erected and maintained there until the sixth day. It is surrounded by twenty iron candlesticks, carrying large yellow candles, and by the Noble Guard in red uniform with reversed swords and with a mourning cockade in place. The mace-bearers in their purple dress and with the silver mace reversed guard the entrance to the chapel. On the outside of the basilica, the great door and the portico are draped in purple with gold fringe, surmounted by the deceased Pope’s coat of arms. Six candles of yellow wax burn on the choir altar, another six on the High Altar, and two before the statue of St Peter.

The Cardinals, at the invitation of the Dean of the Sacred College, come to St Peter’s in purple cassock and mozzetta, without mantelletta, as a sign of jurisdiction. In the sacristy, they put on the cappa of purple silk, but those created by the deceased Pope use wool as a sign of mourning.  

They proceed individually to the chapel, where they take their places according to the customary order. The Cardinal-Bishops and Cardinal-Priests occupy the upper stalls on the gospel side; facing them, on the epistle side, are the Cardinal-Deacons, the Patriarchs, the Archbishops and Bishops Assistants at the Throne, the four prelates "di fiochetti“ and the Bishops non-Assistants. The train-bearers sit at the feet of their masters and carry their torches. The prelature occupies the lower stalls by the benefices; all wear black and a plain rochet without lace. Only the auditors of the Rota and the consistorial advocates wear the purple mantle. The Master of the Sacred Palace, the generals and procurators general of the religious orders take their place in the stalls of the benefices.

All assistants except the Cardinals genuflect on entering the chapel, not only on account of the altar but also of the Sacred College, because among them is the future Pope.

The first day, the Mass is sung by the Cardinal Dean of the Sacred College, after that by the Cardinal-Bishops and the three last days by the Cardinal-Priests. The celebrant […] takes the biretta and washes his hands, then receives the amice, alb, cincture, maniple, pectoral cross, stole, tunicles, black chasuble, white damask mitre and episcopal ring.

The Mass is sung by the cantors of the Sistine Chapel in plainchant. During the "Dies Irae“, which is in the form of music, torches are distributed to the cardinals, fiochetti prelates, and Patriarchs, and candles of two pounds to all the other assistants. These are lit during the gospel, after the preface until the communion and during the absolution. Besides this distribution, which is renewed each day, the family of each Cardinal also receives for its part three pounds of white candle wax, which makes twenty-seven for the total duration of the funeral ceremonies. After the Mass, the chapel intones the "Libera“, the celebrant takes the cope and performs the absolution. He retires to the sacristy, where the Sacred College reunites and holds the second general congregation.

The Mass of "Requiem pro papa defuncto“ is sung in this manner the following four days. In the evening of the third day, the burial of the Pope takes place. The Cardinals of his creation and the others, if they wish to take part, come to the sacristy of St. Peter’s accompanied by their household. The clerics of the Reverend Apostolic Chamber escort the Camerlengo. The procession forms immediately. The Chapter and clergy of the basilica go to the Choir Chapel, where the Cardinals have already taken their place, while the cantors sing the Miserere in a grave and sombre psalm-tone. The chaplains of the basilica, vested in cotta and assisted by the Archconfraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, bring the body of the Pope to the Choir Chapel. They are accompanied by the Noble and Swiss Guards. During the transfer, the chapel choir executes the "In paradisum“. The vicar capitular, vested in pontificals and black cope with white mitre, blesses the cypress coffin, then sprinkles it with holy water and incenses it. The cantors intone the antiphon "Ingrediar,“ then the psalm "Quemadmodum desiderat“ [Ps. 41], which ends with the repetition of the antiphon.

During this time, multiple priests take down the corpse, vested as it was exposed, and place it in a large shroud of gold lamé, lined with red silk and fringed with gold. All around stands the household of the Pope, the majordomo, the master of the chamber and the chaplains, all dressed in purple as they continue their service of the Pope. They do not abandon this colour until after the burial, only then do they go into mourning.

The Cardinal nephew or relative of the Pope and, in case of absence, the majordomo cover the deceased’s face and hands with a veil of white silk; then, with the assistance of a master of ceremonies, a purse of red velvet containing three further velvet pouches is laid at the lower end of the coffin. In each one are medals of gold, silver and bronze of a number equal to the Pontiff’s reign. On one side they bear the portrait of the Pope, the other lists the most important facts of his reign.

Two masters of ceremonies extend another shroud of red silk over the entire body, over which one wraps the ends of the first shroud. In this manner he is placed in the coffin, which is closed with screws. The act of burial is recorded by the notary of the Apostolic Chamber, one of the secretaries of the Chamber and notary of the Capitol, who acts as chancellor of the Vatican Basilica. The first Cardinal created by the Pope placed next to the purses a tube of tin, containing a parchment indicating the principal events of the Pontiff’s reign [the "rogitum“].

The Cardinals now consign the coffin to the Chapter, which immediately has it placed in another coffin of lead, the cover of which bears the name and arms of the deceased Pope, as well as the length of his reign and the date of his death. This second coffin is sealed with the seal of the Camerlengo and the Majordomo. Finally, these two coffins are encased in a third of wood, upon which the seals of the Camerlengo, the Archpriest of the Basilica, the Majordomo and the Chapter are placed.

The Pontiff, thus buried, is placed provisionally in a niche to the left of the choir chapel, above the doorway that leads to the cantors’ vesting place [possibly where the monument to St Pius X is today?]. When he is placed there, the workers begin carving the front part in the shape of a tomb, upon which one reads the name of the deceased. Upon the lid, a stucco is moulded in the form of a cushion and a tiara.

On the seventh day, the last of the Requiem Masses takes place in St Peter’s. In the middle of the great nave, between the two chapels of the Blessed Sacrament and the Choir, a majestic catafalque is raised, replacing the more modest one of the preceding days. The work of an eminent artist, it is distinguished by its painted canvases, reliefs, and statues. One might see the bust of the Pope, his arms and those of the Papal States, the more remarkable events of his reign, inscriptions recalling his virtues, or emblems alluding to them. Upon this pyramidical monument there are multiple levels and great numbers of wax candles. According to the disposition of Alexander VII, the cost of this monument should not exceed two thousand Roman scudi.

The three guards, Noble, Swiss, and Palatine, surround the catafalque and guard the choir chapel. Before the grille of the Blessed Sacrament chapel, the employees of the Palace distribute 2oz candles of white wax to the people today and the two following days, so that they may light them during the Mass according to the rubric.

The Mass is sung, as usual, at the altar of the canons’ choir, the High Altar being reserved exclusively to the Sovereign Pontiff. After the Mass, the funeral oration for the Pope is pronounced in Latin by a prelate chosen by the Sacred College. […]

The officiating cardinal takes the black cope with the white damask mitre. The masters of ceremonies guide the four cardinals appointed for the absolutions to the altar. They take the cotta over the rochet, the amice, stole and black cope with the white damask mitre. The clergy, preceded by the cross carried by the subdeacon and guarded by the ushers of the red rod, with two ordinary acolytes, salutes the Sacred College and leaves the chapel, heading for the catafalque. The officiating cardinals go to the platform at the foot of the monument. The celebrant stands in the middle, facing the cross of the subdeacon and with his back to the altar of the choir. the four other cardinals take their places at the four corners on stools provided. The celebrant recites the prayer "Non intres“. The choir, having responded Amen, intones the responsory "Subvenite Sancti Dei“. The youngest of the four cardinals blesses the incense and announces the Pater, during which he performs the first round about the catafalque, sprinkling and incensing it successively. He finishes by offering the prayer "Deus cui omnia vivent“.

The three other cardinals perform the absolution in the same manner. The second is preceded by the "Libera“, the third by "Qui Lazarum ressuscitasti“. The "Libera“ is taken up again for the last absolution, reserved to the officiating cardinal. After the ceremony, the cardinals retire to the sacristy, where they hold a general congregation.

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