A Simple Funeral for a Catholic Cardinal: A Primer

COMMENTARY: The funeral of Cardinal George Pell provides a useful opportunity to know the usual practice for a cardinal of the Roman Curia.

Pope Francis attends the funeral Mass of Cardinal Angelo Sodano at the Papal Chapel in late May 2022.
Pope Francis attends the funeral Mass of Cardinal Angelo Sodano at the Papal Chapel in late May 2022. (photo: National Catholic Register / Vatican Media)

Cardinals in the Catholic Church witness many grand liturgical rituals in life. In death, their funerals are far more simple than for a bishop in his own cathedral, even a pastor in his own parish.

Mourners who gather in Rome — both from across the Atlantic and from Down Under — for the Vatican funeral of the late Cardinal George Pell on Saturday will encounter that simplicity. While the Vatican can put on splendid ceremonies, the funeral of a cardinal is not one of them. Indeed, it can even seem perfunctory. Partly it is because cardinals — while great personages in their various home dioceses — are rather common in Rome.

The recent funeral for Pope Benedict XVI occasioned some minor controversies about whether this or that aspect was fitting. Therefore, it is useful to know the usual practice for a cardinal of the Roman Curia — something that happens at least several times a year.

The funeral takes places quickly, sometimes even within 48 hours of the death. Under Pope Francis, the preference has been to have the funeral as soon as possible, usually leading to discussions with the late cardinal’s associates, who often prefer to wait in order to permit mourners to arrive from further afield. Cardinal Pell’s funeral will be four days after he died, which is about the maximum. When Cardinal Angelo Sodano, former dean of the College of Cardinals and former secretary of state, died in May 2022, his funeral was four days afterward.

When Cardinal William Levada, former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, died in Rome in September 2019, his funeral was celebrated the very next day, less than 30 hours after he was discovered to have died during the night. 

The cardinal’s mortal remains are usually placed in a standard Vatican casket, with a simple oval plaque attached (including Italian and the European format for his birth and death dates): S. Em.za Cardinale George Pell/ 08-06-1941/ 10-01-2023

The casket is placed in vigil on the floor in the small church of St. Stephen of the Abyssinians, which is just a few yards behind St. Peter’s Basilica. Mourners are welcome to pray before the body, though if the funeral is very soon, not many have the chance. A notable sight last year was Benedict XVI riding his motorized wheelchair down the hill from his monastery in the Vatican Gardens to pray before the body of Cardinal Sodano.

The funeral Mass itself is absolutely standard, just as you find in any parish church for any parishioner. The prayers for a bishop are used, with the only notable variation being that the title of “cardinal” is used, as in “George, cardinal.”

The Mass is customarily celebrated by the most senior cardinal available in Rome, usually the dean of the College of Cardinals. Cardinal Pell’s funeral will be celebrated by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, the current dean, who was also the “cardinal at the altar” for the funeral of Benedict XVI.

The Mass is celebrated at the Altar of the Chair beneath the Holy Spirit window in the apse of St. Peter’s Basilica, behind the main papal altar. Again, the casket is placed directly on the floor during the Mass. Usually a good number of cardinals present in Rome concelebrate the funeral Mass.

The pope attends if he is not travelling. Practice has varied in recent years. In his early years, St. John Paul II would sometimes celebrate the Mass himself and preach the homily. As his pontificate grew longer, he would come at the end of the funeral Mass, preach a homily that also reviewed the life of the late cardinal, and then conduct the final commendation and blessing. Pope Benedict XVI continued the latter practice.

Pope Francis comes at the end of the Mass, but does not preach a homily or offer a eulogy, though the rite still uses the term valedictio. Cardinal Re will be the only one to preach at the funeral of Cardinal Pell. Pope Francis will conduct the Final Commendation and blessing. 

The funeral Mass is conducted while the basilica is open to the public. Pilgrims are making their way through the basilica, many of them wholly unaware that a cardinal’s funeral is taking place at the far end and that the Holy Father himself is in the basilica.

Depending on circumstances, the funeral itself may be attended by only a few dozen people — as was the case for the quick funeral of Cardinal Levada — or by a large congregation, as was the case for Cardinal Sodano. Given Cardinal Pell’s great prominence and the loyalty he inspired in so many, it could be expected that there would be more mourners than usual. It is expected that Australia’s diplomatic representatives to the Holy See will be present.

After the funeral, the casket is carried out and conveyed to a discreet burial. The cardinals disperse, usually half-joking in the sacristy about which of their number will be the occasion for the next funeral. 

And that is that — except when it isn’t. In the case of some cardinals who, prior to their Curial service, were diocesan bishops or prelates of note in their home countries, the casket is repatriated, where sometimes a very grand second funeral takes place. Such was the case for Cardinal Levada, former archbishop of San Francisco. A funeral attended by some 2,000 people was held on Oct. 24, 2019, nearly a month after his death in Rome, at the San Francisco cathedral where he once had his seat. 

More recently, Cardinal Josef Tomko, the heroic Slovakian prelate who held key positions under John Paul, died this past August in Rome at 98, the oldest living cardinal. After the customary low-key funeral in Rome with Pope Francis attending, his body was returned to Slovakia for another funeral and burial in St. Elisabeth Cathedral in Košice. It was considered a solemn state occasion.

Cardinal Pell’s body will be repatriated to Sydney, where another funeral will take place. He will be buried in the crypt of the Sydney cathedral as a former archbishop of Sydney. That will be an occasion fitting for a figure of his stature, presided over by his successor and friend, Archbishop Anthony Fisher, who called him a “lion of our Church.”

Cardinal George Pell gives an interview to EWTN News at his home in Rome in December 2020.

Cardinal George Pell’s Final Years in Rome

During a Mass remembering Mother Angelica in 2022, Cardinal Pell said: ‘Mother was a flesh-and-bone figure, energetic, pushy, aggressive for the Gospel. She was not well named as it will be difficult to think of anyone who was, in some ways, less angelical.’