Will the Next Pope Be Crowned?

The announcement of Pope Benedict XVI on February 11, 2013 that he would leave the Papacy (he could not resign it, as there is no earthly authority into whose hands he could do so; he renounced the See of St. Peter and the Diocese of Rome, and abdicated as Sovereign of the Vatican City State) on February 28 sent shock-waves throughout the world, and continues to do so at this writing. The fact that he will still be alive, though not participating, immediately alters many of the traditional features of the Sede Vacante — those dealing with ceremonial side of Papal death will be omitted, though something will have to be decided about such things as the ritual destruction of Benedict’s official ring. The Conclave shall duly elect Benedict’s successor, and the new Pontificate shall begin.

Apart from the next Pope’s record in diocesan or curial administration, much will be told about the course he intends to follow by his choices for the rites with which his Papacy will begin — what was traditionally called a coronation, and has been referred to in the last three Pontificates as an “installation” or “inauguration.” Pay close attention to what transpires on that day in early or mid-March; you will learn a great deal about the course of the Church in the next few years.

For the past several centuries, the coronation was a long ceremony, taking about six hours to complete. When Paul VI was elected, he shortened it considerably, by removing many of the small gestures, some of the repeated actions, and the like. He was however crowned with a Tiara as were his predecessors (albeit — in keeping with his unique aesthetics — a rather ugly one lacking the traditional ornamentation). Paul laid it on the altar of St. Peter’s at the end of Vatican II, in a gesture that was seen as bespeaking humility by some and as virtual abdication by others. Because of the changes he made in the Papal Court (ending most hereditary and lay offices, though a few remain), Paul made it impossible, just as he had with Papal funerals, for the sort of Coronation that he and his predecessors enjoyed to be performed again (cynics noted that while calling for a greater role for laity in the Church at large, he sharply reduced their standing in the ceremonial life of the Vatican). Nevertheless, it is certain that he intended for his successors to have some sort of coronation. In 1975 Apostolic Constitution, Romano Pontifici Eligendo, Paul explicitly declared, “the new pontiff is to be crowned by the senior cardinal deacon.”

His successor, John Paul I, whatever his other qualities, was no friend of pageantry. When he became Patriarch of Venice, he refused the state entrance via the Patriarchal gondola that had been customary up to that time (that ceremony has since been restored). Refusing to be crowned, he was installed in a simple “Papal Inauguration Mass,” held outside the Basilica, in St. Peter’s Square. He further moved it to the morning to avoid clashing with Italian soccer coverage, normally broadcast in the afternoon. John Paul I also, as we saw, refused the Sedia Gestatoria until circumstances forced him to use it. There was, supposedly, a great deal opposition to his refusal to be crowned, but Virgilio Noe, Papal Master of Ceremonies, whose liturgical innovations drew notice until his retirement from that post, supported him in his resolution, and helped him design the new ceremony. The heart of it would be the bestowal of the pallium by the Senior Cardinal Deacon, rather than the tiara.

When John Paul I died weeks after his inauguration, Vatican-watchers wondered what his successor would do regarding a coronation. John Paul II decided against it. In his homily at his Inauguration Mass, he declared that Paul VI had “left his Successors free to decide” the issue, although, as has been notice, Paul had been explicit about the use of the Tiara. But John Paul II went on to say that, “Pope John Paul I, whose memory is so vivid in our hearts, did not wish to have the tiara; nor does his Successor wish it today. This is not the time to return to a ceremony and an object considered, wrongly, to be a symbol of the temporal power of the Popes.”

John Paul II was very clear about the way he wanted future conclaves run. But by contrast, he was vague about his successors’ coronations. In Universi Dominici Gregis, his only reference to the ceremonial enthronement was: “After the solemn ceremony of the inauguration of the pontificate and within an appropriate time…” This did not, in fact, leave much for future Popes to go on. Interestingly enough, however, both John Pauls retained the Tiara in their personal coats-of-arms.

While Benedict XVI in the end decided against the Tiara for his 2005 installation, such sources as the French magazine Pointe de Vue maintained that it was only a last minute decision. Supposedly, Benedict had wanted the Tiara, but had been thwarted by the staff at the Vatican — most notably Archbishop Piero Marini, Noe’s successor as Papal Master of ceremonies. Whether or not this is true, on the one hand, Benedict decided against the use of the Tiara in his coat of arms (although retaining it in the Papal Arms). On the other, Marini’s early retirement was announced shortly after the ceremony. One further sign of informality was that Heads of State and other prominent laymen were allowed to wear business suits rather than white tie.

Benedict XVI’s inauguration took place on April 24, 2005, and was conducted in accordance with changes that he had authorized the day after he was elected. It began with Pope and Cardinals kneeling at the tomb of St. Peter, after which the new Pontiff said, “I leave from where the Apostle arrived.” Joining them there were the Eastern Catholic Patriarchs, who had a much larger part in the ceremony than was formerly the case (as happened with John Paul II’s funeral, and which was an innovation which this writer, for one, applauds). They then processed from the Tomb to the entrance of the Basilica, joined by two deacons carrying the ring of the fisherman and the pallium.

The pallium to be used on this occasion was quite different from the standard, being at once wider and longer, and worn draped over the shoulders; it is made of wool with black silk tips, and bears five embroidered red silk crosses, rather than the six black ones other pallia display. Moreover, there are three pins in three of the crosses symbolizing the three nails driven into Christ at the Crucifixion. This is an antique style of pallium, worn by Popes prior to the wearing of the Tiara — and perhaps reflecting the new Pope’s interest in the early Church.

As the party processed out to the Square and the waiting temporary altar, the choir sang the Laudes Regiae. Once they arrived, Benedict made the sign of the cross in Latin, which was the primary language of the liturgy. The Mass was fairly standard, but after the reading of the Gospel in Latin and Greek, the top-ranking Cardinal deacon placed the pallium on Benedict’s shoulders, after which the Dean of the College of Cardinals placed the ring on his finger.

These deeds accomplished, another innovation took place. Rather than have all the Cardinals repeat their oaths of allegiance (for they had sworn to obey Benedict after his election) an act of homage symbolic of the obedience of the whole Catholic world took place. The senior Cardinal Bishop, the senior Cardinal Priest, the senior Cardinal Deacon, the bishop of the new Pope’s former suburbicarian diocese of Velletri-Segni, the pastor of Benedict’s former titular church Santa Maria Consolatrice al Tiburtino, a deacon, a religious brother, a Benedictine nun, a married couple from Korea, a young Sri Lankan woman and a young Congolese man (the latter two of whom had both recently been confirmed) all swore allegiance, on behalf of themselves and the different stations in life within the Church they represented. While all this was happening, Tu Est Petrus was sung.

Benedict gave his homily, and then he and all assembled chanted the Creed in Latin. The Prayers of the Faithful, although the responses were in Latin, were uttered in a number of vernaculars: German, French, Arabic, Chinese, and Portuguese. All the rest of the prayers of the Mass were in Latin.

When the Mass was over, Benedict greeted various groups of dignitaries that had come for his Inauguration. Although lacking the pomp of his pre-1963 predecessors, it was a moving and impressive rite. In another break with tradition, the first Basilica he visited after his installation was St. Paul Outside the Walls, the following day. But on May 7 Benedict did go to St. John Lateran, where he celebrated and venerated the image of Mary as Salus Populi Romani. The Pontificate of Benedict XVI was off to its start.

Will Popes Be Crowned Again?

After all of this, the inevitable question is — will there ever be a return to the full-blown coronations of yore? An easy answer is, not unless a future Pontiff restores the Papal Court, an unlikely event in the foreseeable future.

But, given current clerical trends, in that younger priests tend to be more enamored of orthodoxy and tradition than their immediate predecessors, on average, it is probable that the Tiara and rather more pomp will one day make the appearance. When the generation whose members still venerate the supposedly egalitarian 1960s pass on to retirement or the grave, their successors will have to guide the Church. A generation of priests who are rediscovering the riches of the Church’s liturgy as far as the Mass and liturgical chant go on a parish level, may be trusted, when Bishops and Cardinals, to do something toward restoring xPapal ceremonial as well. Benedict himself, despite not using the tiara, pioneered the trail in a lot of ways, restoring the use of such Papal garments as the fanon, camauro, mozzetta, mantum, and pontifical shoes — and employing a more traditional throne and processional cross than his immediate predecessors. Certainly a number of the changes visible in John Paul II’s funeral and Benedict XVI’s inauguration would be good to retain — particularly in terms of the expanded use of the Eastern contribution. But in all likelihood, the Tiara too will return, if not the Macebearers and the Master of the Sacred Hospice. As James-Charles Noonan, Jr. opines in The Church Visible:

With the immediate precedence of two [now three! — CAC] papal installations, it is both unlikely and inappropriate for a total return of the past ceremony of coronation. Once again, to the officiali of the Church now falls the task of preparing a proper, theological combined ceremony for institution of a new pontificate. In time, it is possible that such a ceremony will appear.

In the sunshine of St. Peter’s Square, future pontificates could open as Paul VI has envisioned. The emphasis should fall to the sacred, the celebration of Mass central to this liturgy. The act of crowning, symbolic of a pope’s authority as Christ’s Vicar on Earth and his unique position as head of the Universal Church, incorporated within the Eucharistic celebration, most beautifully combines the sacred and the symbolic as required by the law of the Church. (p.43).

There remain a large number of tiaras in the Papal treasury that a future Pope could use — though never worn, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI each had one (the latter, rather tellingly, presented to the Pope by a mixed group of Eastern Catholics and Orthodox). To be sure, there is one time when the Tiara is still used: a giant one is put on the head of the statue of St. Peter in the Basilica that bears his name every June 29, the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul. Of course, it might be unwise to count out even a full coronation forever, at least as long as the uniforms of the Papal Court remain in the Lateran Palace, the families of the Roman nobility continue to breed, and the parafrenieri and sediarii remain ready to serve. After all, the Papacy has outlasted tribes, tyrants, several “isms,” and even nations — it may outlive egalitarianism as well.