Portrait of Pope Pius VI by Jacques-Louis-David Portrait of Pope Pius VI by Jacques-Louis-David 

The last time a Pope celebrated the funeral of his predecessor was in 1802

The last time a Pope celebrated the funeral of his predecessor, as Pope Francis will on Thursday, 5 January, was when Pius VII celebrated the funeral of Pius VI in 1802.

By Andrea Tornielli 

It is understandable that the upcoming celebration of Benedict XVI's funeral by Pope Francis has been presented as something unprecedented in the history of the Church in modern times. 

Undeniably unprecedented, was Pope Ratzinger's resignation, motivated by reasons of age and the lack of physical and mental strength to be able to sustain the responsibilities and the burden of commitments associated with the pontificate. 

But a reigning Pontiff blessing the body of his predecessor before burial is a fact that has a quite recent precedent within the context of the two-thousand-year history of the Church.

It happened in February 1802, with the solemn funeral of Pius VI, celebrated in St. Peter's Basilica by his successor Pius VII. The deceased, born Giannangelo Braschi (Cesena 1717 - Valence 1799), was elected Pontiff in 1775, and after a long reign died in exile in France, a prisoner of Napoleon.

The funeral took place in Valence, immediately after his death, while the 'novendialis' (the nine days of mourning before a conclave) were held in Venice, the city where the cardinals had gathered to elect a successor.

Pius VII, who was elected on 14 March 1800, wanted to have his predecessor's remains brought back to Rome. They were exhumed in December 1801 and travelled from Valence to Marseilles and from there, by ship, to Genoa. Having landed in Italy, the body of the exiled Pontiff began a triumphal pilgrimage, with solemn obsequies celebrated at each stop. On 17 February 1802, “the magnificent triumphal entry into Rome” took place, with the cardinals awaiting the remains at Ponte Milvio. The solemn funeral ceremony was celebrated in St. Peter's Basilica in the presence of Pope Pius VII.

The remains of Pius VI, however, did not rest: the heart and "precordium" (the ancient name for the organs and anatomical formations of the thoracic cavity surrounding the heart, believed to be the seat of affections, feelings and sensibility) of Pius VI were brought back to Valence in 1802, at the explicit request of the government of Paris, with a long return journey including various stops in France. But in 1811, the heart was, once again, returned to Rome.

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04 January 2023, 13:22