Saturday, April 09, 2005

Papal Funeral Symbolism

Bene Diction asked:

Would one of my Roman Catholic friends tell me what the book of gospels is?

The media is calling the red book laid on the top of Pope John II's coffin, the book of gospels.

Here's my response:

"This is a very untechnical and incomplete explanation.

The Book of Gospels is literally a book with only Gospel readings in it. Since the Gospels are the words of Christ, they symbolize, in a special way, Christ's presence at Mass. At the beginning of Mass, the priest or deacon processes in with the book of gospels and lays it on the altar.

There are three scripture readings at Sunday Mass, the first is from the Old Testament, the second from the New Testament and the third from the Gospels.

The first and second reading are read by lay people, but the Gospel can only be read by one who is ordained, i.e., priest or deacon. After the second reading, the lay person puts the book with the OT and NT readings away and then the priest or deacon processes with the Book of Gospels to the ambo or lectern and reads/proclaims the Gospel.

Because the book of gospels is highly symbolic and used for the processing in, they tend to be pretty ornate.

Many priests, like to own their own personal copy of the Book of Gospels and thus buy copies that match their sentiments artwise, etc.

As for the symbolism of placing it on the coffin, I don't know. Like a good Catholic, I could make something up:) "

I also found a couple more things about the Papal funeral mass and symbolism:

This USA Today article: Papal Funeral Merges Spectacle, Symbolism

Here's an explanation from the article why the Book of Gospels was on the Pope's casket/coffin:

The change in papal funerals was expressed most starkly in the first to be held after Vatican II. Pope Paul VI's instructions for the service broke with tradition, which had been to bury the pope as if he were a Renaissance prince. Paul's funeral, the first in modern times held in St. Peter's Square, was striking in its simplicity. His coffin rested on the ground, not the elaborate catafalque that had supported popes' remains for centuries. Instead of a crown, all that rested on the coffin's lid was an open book of the Gospels.

"He was a man of the word, and that book was a powerful symbol of that," said Driscoll, the Notre Dame theologian. "What I remember is the utter simplicity of it."

Paul's successor, John Paul I, died a month after he was elected. Again, the trappings were minimal. Again, the gospel book sat atop the casket. But this time, the rain and wind in St. Peter's Square blew the pages this way and that — like the breath of the Holy Spirit, some said. In his homily, Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri said the pope "had flashed like a meteor across the sky."

And then some nasty Papal funeral/death trivia:

• Nine months after his death in 896, Pope Formosus' body was exhumed by his successor, Stephen VI, and subjected to a mock trial in which the dead pope was found guilty of perjury and other crimes. His body was mutilated and thrown into the Tiber River.

• Pope Hadrian VI was so unpopular that after his funeral in 1523, a crowd marched to his doctor's house, festooned it with garlands and posted a sign: "Salvator Populi Romani" — Savior of the People of Rome. He was buried between Pius II and Pius III. His tomb bore this Latin graffito: "Hic jacet impius Pios" — "here lies an impious pope between two Piuses."

• After Pope Pius IX's 31-year papacy ended in 1878, a crowd of anti-clerical Romans attacked the procession as his body was being transferred to another basilica in 1881. They tried to seize his body and throw it into the Tiber, but didn't succeed.

• Before he died in 1914, Pius X left instructions that his body not be embalmed. As a result, no subsequent popes have been, either — sometimes with unpleasant results, according to the Rev. Richard McBrien, a Notre Dame church historian. Pius XII's nose almost fell off in the days after his death in 1958. In 1978, Paul VI's ears turned black, and John Paul I's face turned green as they lay in state. The Vatican has said that John Paul II's body was "prepared" for viewing but did not use the word "embalmed."

and then this irony

In 1978, Communist Party officials throughout Europe mourned the passing of Paul VI, whom they regarded as relatively open to a Christian-Marxist dialogue. His funeral was attended by government officials from communist Hungary and Poland, and Italian communists hung posters around Rome that declared, "Communists weep for the death of Paul VI."

They had more to weep about than they guessed. Over the next two months, the Catholic Church would get two new popes. The second one was from Poland, where he saw communism up close and was not favorably impressed. The rest is history.

Here's "Ask Father Bernie" on Catholic Funerals and symbolism


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