Why Didn’t Bells Ring for Pope Benedict XVI?

The grand bells at the Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican, or simply St. Peter’s Basilica, were notably quiet Saturday morning. While a single bell could be heard tolling in St. Peter’s Square, a Vatican spokesman was quick to clarify the bell was not ringing for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, whose death at 95 had just been announced.

It was an unusual break from the well-elaborated rituals governing the interregnum period following the death of a pope. Of course, Benedict XVI was no ordinary pope. He was Pope Emeritus, the first pontiff in 600 years to step down as the Bishop of Rome. For centuries, the papal tiara was only transferred after death.

Not so in 2013, when Benedict’s resignation startled the Catholic world and ushered in the papacy of his successor, Pope Frances. For nearly a decade, the two men lived within the cloistered city-state of the Vatican, a pope and an ex-pope. The Holy See had no protocol for such an arrangement, nor has it made known any plans for a retired pope’s funeral rites.

When the last pontiff to die, Pope John Paul II, passed on the evening of April 2, 2005, the light in his papal apartments was extinguished and the plangent toll of a mourning bell rang out 84 times, once for each year of his life. This followed centuries of protocol and tradition. 

The guidelines governing a papal funeral, collected into a 400-page handbook called “Funeral Rites of the Roman Pontiff,” detail that a church bell should be tolled to announce the departure of a sitting pope – there is no mention of an ex-pope.

For this reason, the bells of St. Peter’s did not specifically toll for Benedict’s death, a Vatican monsignor made no solemn proclamation, and a fisherman’s ring was not slashed. Such ceremonies might create confusion as to which of the two men, retired or reigning, had passed. 

In lieu of tolling bells, Vatican events proceeded as scheduled, although in some instances a moment of silence was recognized. Over the next few days, curates will plan a funeral of delicate balance, befitting a Vicar of Christ while recognizing Benedict’s unique position.

Catholic communities across the world offered their own bell ringing tributes to the late pontiff. A bell tolled solemnly at the Kirche St. Oswald in Marktl, Germany, the small Bavarian church where Benedict was baptized. From Munich to Krakow and from Jerusalem to Washington, bells rang out to commemorate his passing. It is expected the Vatican’s bells will toll on the day of the funeral, but we will have to wait and see…

Cover image: Bells are seen within the Renaissance belfry of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.