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

Catholic World Report [San Francisco CA]

January 8, 2023

By Christopher R. Altieri

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

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.