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Essence of Pope Benedict’s funeral was simplicity, as requested

13 January 2023

Christopher Hill gives a first-hand account of the funeral


Thousands attend the funeral mass for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in St Peter’s Square, last week

Thousands attend the funeral mass for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in St Peter’s Square, last week

AT JUST before 9.30, on a cold, grey and misty Roman morning, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI’s coffin was carried out of the Basilica into St Peter’s Square to rest before an altar at which the funeral mass was celebrated, presided over by Pope Francis.

The 30 ecumenical guests included the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Representative to the Holy See, the Most Revd Ian Ernest, together with the Suffragan Bishop in Europe, the Rt Revd David Hamid, and me.

The Orthodox were led by Metropolitan Emmanuel of Chalcedon (known to Anglicans from his former position in the Conference of European Churches and Anglican-Orthodox dialogue), representing Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. The Moscow Patriarchate was also represented. From the Lutheran Churches, there was, appropriately, the Bishop of Bavaria.

At the altar, Pope Francis was assisted only by the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re. Deacons, thurifer, crucifer, and acolytes appeared only as necessary. The essence of the rite was simplicity, which is, indeed, what Emeritus Pope Benedict had requested.

Pope Francis preached a homily, in Italian, instead of giving a eulogy, but it included an extensive quotation from Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care — something of which Benedict, with his emphasis on the Fathers, would no doubt have approved. The rite was conducted in Latin, with Italian, German, English, and other languages. The Eucharistic Prayer was not the traditional Roman Canon of the Mass, but Eucharistic Prayer III, which has echoes of an early eucharistic prayer of Roman provenance (also an antecedent of Common Worship Eucharistic Prayer B).

The feeling was appropriately austere. Traditional requiem chants were used, supplemented by Psalm 130 (“Out of the deep”) and Psalm 42 (“Like as the hart”). The final commendation and farewell did include the more local touch of a request that the Blessed Virgin Mary — “Salus populi Romani” (Deliverance and Health of the people of Rome) — would intercede for him and for the consolation of the Church. Benedict had, after all, been their Bishop.

It was not a papal funeral as such, but the Vatican had clearly given much thought to the way in which Pope Benedict’s funeral mass would be conducted.

There were grumbles reported from some quarters. Why hadn’t Pope Francis eulogised his predecessor? Why the simpler Eucharistic Prayer III rather than the venerable but piecemeal Roman Canon? There were a few cries from the back of St Peter’s Square for Benedict’s immediate canonisation. His memory is already being weaponised in the RC culture war against Pope Francis.

But these were only ripples. The general feeling was that Benedict had asked for simplicity, and this is what the Vatican and Pope Francis had given him. In life, Benedict avoided popularism. At his death, this was truly respected.

At the very end of the rite, the sun began to appear through the mist. Pope Francis left the Square as he had arrived, in his wheelchair, but, on return, making an impromptu diversion to greet all the ecumenical representatives personally.

The Rt Revd Christopher Hill is a former Bishop of Guildford and co-secretary of ARCIC.

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