11; Father A solemn, proud ceremony
THE death of the Pope is one of those occasions great of elaborate symbolism. A part of mankind accepts his predicament and rises above it. The act and fact of death is turned into a solemn, proud ceremony. It is an assertion of the dignity of Man. The same sort of ceremony attends the death of a sovereign in Britain, and it makes the same vaunt in the face of death.
Popes die in many different ways. Some have been murdered. Some have been senile. Pope John XXIII — Good Pope John — died in a protracted agony. Pope Paul died quietly and easily after a heart attack that struck him while he lay in bed and a chaplain was saying Mass in his room.
Most Popes die at a great age. About 65 seems to be the favourite age at which they are elected. The Cardinal electors seem to dread over-long reigns. Extravagant grief, therefore, does not attend their biers. They have been reminded again and again of the approach of death. Many have lovingly prepared their own tomb. often of an un-Christian but imperial splendour. And when, alive, he goes to be crowned. two friars walk ahead of his chair of state carried on the shoulders of eight sturdy men. Every now and again they light little tufts of tow and loudly intone in Latin, "Remember, man, that thou art dust, and into dust they shalt return."
Pope Paul actively anticipated and predicted his death, He died, I think, not of course, in despair, but heartbroken. He had been handed on a Church turned upside-down by the Vatican Council which, in his holy simplicity, Pope John had summoned without consulting anyone, except the Holy Spirit and his conscience.
This opened a Pandora's box,
The liturgy was changed. A deal of ancient pomp and beauty was thrown away. Great feathered fans borrowed in history from the kings of Persia no longer surround his portable throne. Silver trumpets used for the triumph of Caesar no longer sounded from the dome of St Peter's.
The Cardinals lost their long trains of marvellous moire silk that made them, in full fig, the match of any figure on earth. Pope Paul stopped using that high portable throne — until arthritis made it impossible for him to walk the colossal length of St Peter's and he used it again. But now his carriers were gentlemen in dark lounge suits, not in purple seventeenth century Linen. It has held that splendour, in these days, did not befit the legal and spiritual descendant of a fisherman who had been crucified upside-down, or the Vicar of a Man who had been a Carpenter.
But for quite unsentimental reasons, the Roman Catholic Church does not disrespect the body of a dead person. For them it has been the vessel that contained an immortal soul.
A Pope tends to die in public. So do most men of power, or the loved heads of large families. He dies surrounded not only with his medical attendants, but with his household prelates and secretaries. Pope Paul is reported as saying just before he died that Popes die like other men, and that this taught a lesson.
There used to begin then a rather gruesome ritual. When he dies there is an interim in which the Cardinal Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church takes over. He is technically the administrator of the property of the Church. and becomes a head of the College of Cardinals. He used to take a small silver hammer and tap the dead man three times on his forehead, calling him each time by his baptismal name, before pronouncing him quite and officially dead. This is no longer regarded as necessary. Similarly the Home Secretary no longer attends the birth of an English heir apparent.
Signet ring broken
Then the Pope's personal ring — it is a gold signet — is broken up. In England the Great Seal of the Kingdom is scarred across. The Pope's ring is of gold and has on it an image of St Peter in a boat, fishing. It is called the Fisherman's Ring. Jt has the Pope's name engraved on it.
The prayers and Masses start then and go on for nine days. In the meantime the dead Pope's body is embalmed. In the case of Pius XII, who had a curious weakness for quack doctors, this went disastrously and publicly wrong, Paul, like Pius, died at Castelgandalfo, and will lie in state before the great gilded four-poster high altar — one of
the wonders of the world — in St Peter's.
Like his predecessors, Pope John was carried out of the Vatican on a bier. He was carried through a silent and unimaginable crowd. dressed as for Mass, with the red chasuble that is used for requiems and memorials and celebrations of the Holy Spirit. martyrs and Popes. It is a Southern habit, transplanted to the funeral parlours of the United States, thus publicly and splendidly to flaunt the dead. There is nothing wrong in this. Pope John, lying like a sleeping bishop was carried, in the view of the world — via television — in the City, in the piazza of St Peter's, slowly, and splendidly, in a way that was as moving and real as the carrying of a box with remains of someone you loved inside it into a familiar village churchyard. It was as terrible and as loving — only it was done in a different way. But the assertion was for all people.
Then. on Saturday, there will be a Requiem of unparalleled splendour. When the Mass for the Dead is over, he used to receive the nineteen absolutions. This may sound excessive. The idea behind it is that a Pope has so much opportunity for spiritual sin — which is clinically the worst sin there is — that he needs more help than other men. Given the premise, it makes sense.
Then, vested, he is put into a Russian doll-like set of coffins, one of lead, one of cypress and one of oak. He is going to be buried in the crypt of St Peter's.
This. below Bernini's mad and marvellous high altar, is one of the grimmest places I know. It is dark and old and low-roofed. In the centre of a warren of passages and small chapels that lead off the stone tunnels like bomb shelters, of passages that end in darkness and iron gates, of pagan fragments, and merge imperceptibly into Christianity, there is the chapel of St Peter.
This small chapel, with a grille
on the far side of the altar. is the probably place where St Peter was buried. The tomb is a worn fragment of Roman plaster and masonary and has been set up in a crowded graveyard. But it is the reason for all gold and marbles above it and, indeed, for all the claims for the primacy and authority of the See of Rome.
Pope Pius XII and Pope John XXIII lie in adjacent embrasures. They are in great stone sarcophagi. But people still put flowers and little night-lights for them. So that their grave faces are almost cheerful in this dreadful catacomb.
The really ancient Popes lie in darkness in alcoves and corners off these tunnels. The body of Pope Paul will be buried here among his most ancient and most recent predecessors. And the earthly glory which was an agony of decisions and physical pain and hostility and apathy and apparent — in human political terms — failure, will be over and lapped in marble.