Where the Popes Are Buried

Pope Francis wouldn’t be the first pope to have his mortal remains be interred in the Basilica of St. Mary Major.

L to R: St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major and St. Peter’s, in Rome
L to R: St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major and St. Peter’s, in Rome (photo: Public domain)

Pope Francis’ announcement this week that he wants to be buried at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome leads to a question: Where are his predecessors?

If you guessed St. Peter’s Basilica … there’s a good chance you’re right.

How many of them?

Sources vary. Possibly more than 140 of the 265 deceased popes are buried at St. Peter’s, if you count papal graves thought to be at the basilica but now lost. That’s more than half.

It makes sense, because both the current St. Peter’s and its fourth-century predecessor were built over the grave of St. Peter, the first pope. St. Peter’s Basilica is also the focal point of Rome and the most famous church in the world.

The trend of popes being buried there has become more pronounced during the past 400 years and even more pronounced than that during the last 200 years.

Since the current St. Peter’s Basilica was completed in 1626, 24 of the 31 deceased popes have been buried at St. Peter’s. That’s more than three-quarters of them.

Since 1799, when Pope Pius VI died, 14 of the 16 deceased popes during that period have been buried at St. Peter’s.


Somewhere Else

So why would popes choose not to be buried there?

Pope Francis cites his devotion to Mary the Mother of Jesus and his frequent visits (both as pope and before) to the basilica dedicated in her honor, which is a little less than 2 1/2 miles east of St. Peter’s.

Similarly, two other popes of the modern era developed a special connection to churches outside the Vatican.

Blessed Pius IX reconsecrated the Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls in 1854 and oversaw some of its restoration. While he was at it, he also provided for a mausoleum in the church for his own burial.

But even though it’s only about 3 1/2 miles from St. Peter’s, he had a tough time getting there.

In 1870, Pius IX lost the 1,100-year Papal States and almost all of Rome to the newly unified Kingdom of Italy. When he died in 1878, he was initially buried on the grounds of St. Peter’s because tensions were too high for his body to be moved out of the Vatican.

Three years later, in July 1881, a supposedly secret funeral procession from St. Peter’s to St. Lawrence’s held after nightfall was interrupted around midnight by anti-clerical rioters who threatened to throw Pius IX’s body into the Tiber River. Soldiers quelled the disturbance, the procession continued, and the body was reinterred at St. Lawrence’s.

That ugly scene hung over the decisions of the next several popes.

Pius IX’s immediate successor, Pope Leo XIII, chose for his burial place the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral of the bishop of Rome that is about 3 miles southeast of St. Peter’s, largely because he oversaw restoration of the building.

Leo admired Pope Innocent III, the 13th-century pontiff widely considered the most powerful of the medieval popes. Innocent had died unexpectedly in 1216 in Perugia in central Italy while on a diplomatic journey and was initially buried in the cathedral there. But, in 1891, 675 years later, Leo XIII had Innocent’s remains moved from Perugia to the right entrance of St. John Lateran. Leo also decided to have a sepulcher built at the left entrance for himself.

Yet when Leo died in 1903, Vatican authorities were worried about a repeat of the disturbance of Pius IX’s funeral procession. So Leo, too, was buried temporarily at St. Peter’s. Leo’s successor, St. Pius X, didn’t move the body, and neither did his successor, Pope Benedict XV. Leo’s body wasn’t moved until 1924 — 21 years later — during the reign of Pope Pius XI.

Just as with Pius IX, Leo XIII’s body was moved after nightfall, but this time with no disturbance.


Farthest From Rome

Popes led the Church while living in Rome from the time of St. Peter until 1309, when the French archbishop of Bordeaux was elected pope, taking the name Clement V. Because of political tensions, Clement refused to move to Rome and instead set up a papal court at Avignon, in southern France, the seat of a relatively new archdiocese and a Catholic university.

When Clement V died in 1314, he was buried (as his will requested) at a church in Uzeste, in southwest France, not far from his birthplace. At about 600 miles from Rome, Clement V’s body may be the farthest away from the See of Peter of any popes.

Clement V’s six immediate successors were all Frenchmen who reigned at Avignon, and five of them are buried in southern France. Three are buried at Avignon. One is buried at La Chaise-Dieu. Blessed Urban V (died 1370, beatified 1870), a Benedictine abbot before his election, is buried at the Abbey Church of St. Victor in Marseille. 

Since Pope Gregory XI moved the papal court from Avignon to Rome in 1377, all 67 popes who have died have been buried in Rome — 40 of them at St. Peter’s Basilica.


Mary’s Church

The Basilica of St. Mary Major was built in the fifth century to commemorate Mary’s title of Mother of God, which the Council of Ephesus proclaimed in 431. It is the largest church in the world dedicated to Mary and one of four major basilicas in Rome.

Pope Francis has made more than 100 visits to the basilica since he became pope in 2013.

If Pope Francis is buried at the Basilica of St. Mary Major, he won’t be alone. Six other popes are buried there. But he would be the first in more than 350 years.

Pope Honorius III (died 1227) is buried at St. Mary Major, where he once served as a canon, meaning a cleric tied to a church and living in community there under ecclesiastical rule.

St. Pius V (died 1572), a Dominican associated with implementing the Council of Trent and with the Christians’ victory over the Muslims in the Battle of Lepanto, is buried there. (It occurred about a decade after his initial burial at St. Peter’s, and against the terms of his will, which requested that he be buried in his hometown of Bosco in northern Italy.)

Also buried at St. Mary Major are Pope Sixtus V (died 1590), Pope Clement VIII (died 1605) and Pope Paul V (died 1621).

The most recent pontiff buried there, Pope Clement IX (died 1669), reigned less than two and a half years, but during that time he won the affection of Romans by giving to the poor, visiting hospitals, hearing confessions twice a week for anyone who came, and refusing to enrich his own family or allow his name to be put on buildings.

While Clement wanted his body buried under the pavement of St. Mary Major, his successor built an elaborate tomb for him.

“The death of the beloved pontiff was long lamented by the Romans,” says The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1908, “who considered him, if not the greatest, at least the most amiable of popes.”