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Opinion: Pope Francis had an impossible task with Pope Benedict’s funeral

Criticisms of the handling of the January 5th funeral at the Vatican are missing the real question about the current pontificate.

The funeral of Pope Benedict XVI in Saint Peter's Square, on January 5, 2023. (Image: Benwen Lopez)

Pope Francis and the Vatican were going to be under a microscope during the days between Benedict XVI’s passing and his interment.  There was never any question of avoiding it. The period, however, turned pretty quickly into a sort of Rorschach test for Catholics all around the world.

The test was not so much apt to determine where on the spectrum of political, social, and liturgical opinion people sit, as it was apt to reveal how they view the papacy – the office – and the Church generally.

People were always going to complain. The folks in the Vatican knew it, especially Pope Francis, the first person to succeed a living former pope in more than six centuries. Popes die in office. At least, they are supposed to die in office. They almost always have dies in office. There will be very little without precedent in the history of a two thousand year-old institution, but the circumstances on this one were weird for everyone – and for no one more so than Pope Francis and his team.

Pope Francis and the Vatican had an impossible task: To give Benedict the rites of the Church in a decorous way, neither overdoing it as though he were the reigning pontiff or underdoing it in a way that would look like “memory holing” the man and his pontificate. The job was to thread the very narrow needle of Benedict’s express wishes for reserve without hurting the sensibilities of the faithful who desired a big send-off. It is possible to thread a narrow needle, but the hand holding the thread and the hand holding the needle were out of sync and both kept moving.

It’s just my personal opinion, but it did seem to me that neither Pope Francis nor the Vatican were awful. They weren’t great shakes, mind, but when Job One is to not make a dog’s breakfast of the business and Job One is also the only job, then you don’t … er … swing for the fences. To use a golfing metaphor, you lay up when you want to stay out of the water and/or away from the sand. Pope Francis and the Vatican hit a lay-up shot. 

Lots of people took exception to the reserve with which Pope Francis spoke of his predecessor in the homily he gave at Benedict’s funeral Mass. Francis only mentioned him once. It was a pretty by-the-numbers funeral homily. Frankly, too much praise from the reigning pontiff’s lips on the occasion may well have been unseemly in the other direction, inviting questions of “Why?” and “Why now?” if not seeming insincere, as though the speaker – Francis – thought he needed to gild the lily. Regardless, Benedict’s legacy is before the world, and in any case, there is going to be a fight over it.

If Francis refused to use Benedict’s funeral to fire shots or maneuver, then that’s good enough, and “good enough” is sometimes the best one can hope to do.

Pope Francis did not go to the crypt for Benedict’s interment, either. It would have been good of him to go down. Was it so awful that he didn’t? Francis is eighty-six years old, has a bum knee and other health issues besides, and had already exerted himself considerably. It’s OK to cut him some slack.

The real question is whether Pope Francis can govern the Church in his condition. “One governs with the head, not the knee,” said Francis in a recent interview. Then again, Benedict renounced the chair because his health wouldn’t allow him to perform even non-essential duties of reigning – he specifically cited the impossibility of travelling to World Youth Day – thus assuring that “the knee” would be part of public considerations regarding any incumbent’s fitness for office. All that is a separate can o’ worms, but the lid is up and it is thanks to Benedict.

Between Benedict’s passing and his funeral there was also a good deal of complaining – and a good bit of that justified, I think, even if this hard-bitten old hand would be willing to quibble with some of the ways in which it was couched – about the willingness of some Church-watchers to begin the dissection of Benedict’s leadership record before his body was even cold.

There’s a way of viewing the business that allows for both mourning and criticism, neither being necessarily out of place. To sit in the big chair is to court controversy – I’ve said it before à propos of Francis in particular and leaders in general – and to abdicate said chair as Benedict did is to court more of it. Public figures will face public scrutiny. It is reasonable and even praiseworthy to refrain from criticism for a time, but it does not follow that efforts to register criticism should be eo ipso unreasonable or blameworthy.

People love Benedict and are sad at his passing. People hurt because of his failures in leadership – which include, in their estimation (and mine, for the record) his decision to step down – and even spiritual fatherhood. Some of them are the same people. Wherever one finds oneself, it’s a lot to process. There will be perfectly human reactions in time and place.

If it is possible to praise the piety and restraint of those who waited at least until Benedict’s rites had been said, and also to avoid blaming those who chose for many legitimate reasons to offer critical assessment even before they had been said, then that is a needle worth trying to thread.


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About Christopher R. Altieri 190 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.

9 Comments

  1. As we live longer, or survive with issues, in some cases, we may have to reexamine the appropriate time at which to step down from leadership positions. Many companies have mandatory retirement ages for those positions that require mental acuity and the ability to react to and process change, in general.

    Why are there so many older people in the US Congress, for instance? Is it to protect the purse strings?

  2. I’ve said before but I’ll say it again, the most memorable aspect for me from Pope Benedict’s funeral was the image of all those young priests. To me, this was/is way more important than Pope Francis’ homily or any other specifics of the proceedings.

  3. Some of the criticism of Pope Francis over the funeral was harsh and a bad look as was criticism of Benedict before his body was even cold.

    The bitterness in the Church from all side will only invite the wrath of God IMHO.

    Let us pray it doesn’t come to that.

  4. I well remember watching St. John Paul II’s funeral celebrated by the then Cardinal Ratzinger. It was a huge international event. He presided with dignity and reverence. His homily was eloquent, spiritual and spoken with feeling – a perfect fit for the occasion. I did not doubt for a moment who had written the homily or about whom it was clearly written. It was beautiful, heartfelt and memorable.
    With millions watching around the world, Cardinal Ratzinger had a formidable assignment. He rose to the occasion – his intelligence, character and holiness shone through. It can be done.

    • It certainly can be done. The author quotes Francis boasting that a pope governs with the head, but when has Francis ever demonstrated himself to be anything but an intellectual flyweight intent, not at all on doing his actual job of defending the Deposit of Faith, but deconstructing the faith to conform to his secular elitist globalist agenda, a pursuit abhorrent to his predecessor.

  5. I watched the funeral of Pope Benedict XVI, and read all the reports leading up to it. It was very wrong to transport the body of Pope Benedict into St. Peter’s by way of a van at night, disallowing the Roman people and pilgrims to view and say good-bye to their beloved Pope Benedict as he passed by in procession…as JPII had done. It was an outrage not to use the Roman Canon at the funeral Mass. It trivialized Benedict’s Mass using a made-up Eucharistic Prayer #3. Pope Francis barely acknowledged Benedict in his homily, and refused to go down to the crypt for his burial. I read it was because Francis “was tired and cold”. No excuses. Francis and his liberal advisors were out to minimize Pope Benedict XVI at his funeral, and it backfired badly on them.

  6. they have been looking forward to it with eager anticipation for 10 years… I’m sure they used that time to ‘plan’ everything. down to the slightest insult.

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Opinion: Pope Francis had an impossible task with Pope Benedict’s funeral | Passionists Missionaries Kenya, Vice Province of St. Charles Lwanga, Fathers & Brothers
  2. Opinion: Pope Francis had an impossible task with Pope Benedict’s funeral | Franciscan Sisters of St Joseph (FSJ) , Asumbi Sisters Kenya
  3. Opinion: Pope Francis had an impossible task with Pope Benedict’s funeral – Catholic World Report – The Old Roman

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