What happens when a Pope dies?

When a Pope dies, what happens next?

Regardless of the circumstances, when a Pope dies certain procedures specified in Church law, specifically the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, must be followed. First among these is the certification that he is truly dead. This task falls to the Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church.

In the presence of the Master of Papal Liturgical Ceremonies, the Cleric Prelates of the Apostolic Camera, and the Secretary and the Chancellor of the Apostolic Camera, the Camerlengo ascertains that the Pope is dead. Naturally, this could require the assistance of medical personnel. Having made this determination, the Chancellor of the Apostolic Camera draws up the official death certificate. The Camerlengo then seals the Pope’s bedroom and studies. Its unsealing and the disposition of its contents must wait the election of his successor. If the deceased Pope has left a will naming an executor for his personal belongings, the executor is responsible for faithfully carrying out the will, and for giving an account of his service to the new Pope.

Public Announcement by Cardinal Vicar

Having certified that the Pope is dead, the Camerlengo notifies the Archpriest of the Vatican Basilica and the Cardinal Vicar of the Diocese of Rome. It is the Cardinal Vicar who publicly announces to the City of Rome that its Bishop has died. Between the Camerlengo and the Prefect of the Papal Household, the Dean of the College of Cardinals must be informed. The Dean, in turn, officially notifies the other Cardinals and calls them to Rome. He also notifies the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, and the Heads of State of the various  nations. The Camerlengo must also take custody of the Apostolic Palaces of the Vatican, the Lateran Palace and Castel Gondolpho, that is, the various personal quarters of the Pope.

After the Pope’s body has been properly prepared it is taken to the Sistine Chapel for the private veneration of the Papal Household and the Cardinals. Afterward, it is taken to the Patriarchal Basilica of the Vatican, St. Peter’s, where it will lie in state.

Mourning the Pope

The period of mourning, like the period of the interregnum or vacancy, begins when a Pope dies. The day of death is counted as the first day of this period. The College of Cardinals will also declare an official mourning period of nine days, called the Novendiales*, which during the Vacancy after the death of Pope John Paul II began on the day of the funeral, counted as Day 1 of the Novendiales. On each of the nine days a different Cardinal celebrates a public funeral rite for the Holy Father, following the Ordo Exsequiarum Romani Pontificis (2000).

For other celebrants, the Missal provides a Mass formula “For a Deceased Pope,” and the Liturgy of the Hours an Office of the Dead, which can be used during this time, if the liturgical season permits. In 2005, since Pope John Paul II died during the Octave of Easter (on the Vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday), the initial rites celebrated for him observed the liturgical precedence which the Octave of Easter, the Sundays of Easter and Solemnities which are Holy Days, have (the Annunciation had been transferred out of Holy Week in 2005 to 4 April). However, excluding Sundays, the Mass formula for a deceased Pope, and the Office of the Dead with proper, were able to be celebrated during the Easter Season.

Prior to his burial, and following private rites in the Sistine Chapel, the Pope is laid in state in St. Peter’s Basilica, permitting the faithful to pay their respects. In Pope John Paul II’s case, this was preceded by a period of visitation for the Papal Household, Civil Dignitaries and Diplomats, held in the Clementina Hall of the Apostolic Palace.

After the Funeral and Burial the mourning period continues until the nine days are completed.
*novendiales/novemdiales (Latin) and novendiali (Italian):

From novem (nine) and dies (days), meaning lasting nine days. A religious festival of nine days length, or, the ceremonies honoring a deceased, which in ancient Rome ended on the ninth day of death with a funereal feast (the novendialis). The English word novena, for nine days of prayer, shares the same root.

Funeral and Burial

Between the fourth and sixth day after death (that is, on the 5th, 6th or 7th day of the mourning period) a Solemn Funeral Mass is celebrated in St. Peter’s Basilica for a deceased Pope. In John Paul II’s case the funeral and burial was Friday 8 April 2005. The principal celebrant is always the Dean of the College of Cardinals, who at the time of Pope John Paul II’s death was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during John Paul II’s pontificate, and now Pope Benedict XVI.

The Solemn Funeral Mass is concelebrated by the other Cardinals, the Patriarchs, Archbishops and Bishops, Prelates of the Papal Household, Abbots, religious and Roman clergy. Noteworthy in the Funeral Mass are the singing of the Gregorian Introit (entrance chant) “Requiem aeternam dona eis domine” (Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord), the rite of Commendation (with the blessing and incensing of the body), and the Farewell at the end of Mass with its hymn “In Paradisum deducant te angeli” (May the angels lead you into paradise).

The deceased Pope is then buried. These ceremonies include covering the face with a veil of white silk, placing at the feet of the deceased pope a red silk bag containing bronze and silver medals from each year of his pontificate, the reading and signing of the official notification of burial, which is then inserted into a lead tube, sealed, and placed in the coffin. After the coffin is closed, it is sealed and placed in a lead coffin, which itself is sitting in an outer coffin of oak. Finally, the coffins are hermetically sealed and placed in the “ground” (that is, below the floor level of the crypt), over which is placed a marble slab bearing the Pope’s name. Pope John Paul II was buried in the grottoes of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Requiem aeternam

Requiem aeternum dona eis Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Grant him, O Lord, eternal rest, and may perpetual light shine upon him.
Te decet hymnus, Deus, in Sion, et tibi reddetur votum in Jerusalem: Antiphon It is right, O God, to sing to thee a hymn in Zion, and in Jerusalem render thee a vow: Antiphon
Exaudi orationem meam, ad te omnis caro veniet. Antiphon Thou hearest our prayers, to thee all flesh must come. Antiphon
Introit, Requiem Mass

In paradisum

In paradisum deducant te angeli:
in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres,
et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Jerusalem.
May the Angels conduct you to Paradise: And at your coming may the Martyrs receive you. May they lead you to the holy City of Jerusalem.
Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere aeternam habeas requiem. May a choir of Angels receive you. And may you, with Larzarus – once a poor man – Possess eternal peace.
Antiphon, Last Farewell, Requiem Mass


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Raphael Benedict

Raphael Benedict is a Catholic who wants nothing but to spread the catholic faith to reach the ends of the world. Make this possible by always sharing any article or prayers posted on your social media platforms. Remain blessed

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  1. A lot of education. Never knew what happens when the Holy Father dies. The Catholic Church is too methodically. So meticulously methodical that any attempt to stain it may result in frustration. Thanks very much for this education.

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