How the Catholic Church Verifies the Pope’s Death
Given all the conflicting news items about Pope John Paul II, it’s worth noting that the Church has a formal procedure for verifying papal death:
What Happens When the Pope Dies? (America)
When the pope dies, the prefect of the papal household (Bishop James Harvey) informs the camerlengo or chamberlain who must verify his death in the presence of the papal master of ceremonies, the cleric prelates of the Apostolic Camera, and the secretary of the Apostolic Camera who draws up a death certificate. As late as 1903, at the death of Leo XIII, this was done by striking the forehead of the pope with a silver hammer. It may also have been used on John XXIII. One colleague remembers a picture in Life magazine (which I have not had time to look for) in 1958 showing Cardinal Tisserant, then Dean of the College of Cardinals, striking the dead Pope on the forehead and asking, three times, “Eugenio, are you dead?” after each stroke, before saying: “I declare that His Holiness Pope Pius XII is truly dead”. The camerlengo (Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo) tells the vicar of Rome (Cardinal Camillo Ruini) of the popeÃ¢€™s death and the vicar then informs the people of Rome. Meanwhile the prefect of the papal household tells the dean (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) of the college of cardinals who informs the rest of the college, the ambassadors accredited to the Holy See, and the heads of nations. Although this is the formal procedure, in fact most people will first hear of the death of the pope from the media.
The camerlengo locks and seals the private apartment of the pope. In the past looting of papal apartments by his staff, the cardinals or the Roman populace was a common custom. Today popes are more concerned that their private papers not get into the wrong hands. If the pope writes a will, the executor he appoints will take care of his private property and his private papers. This executor is answerable only to the next pope. The popeÃ¢€™s FishermanÃ¢€™s ring and his seal are broken to symbolize the end of his reign and to prevent forgeries. No autopsy is performed, which can lead to wild media speculation if the pope dies suddenly as occurred with John Paul I.
Of course, there are also formal procedures for the transition — or, more precisely, the “interregnum” — but we’ll come to that when the appropriate time comes.
Soon enough, the world will begin discussing the election and the future of the papacy. While, as a devout Catholic, I welcome this discussion (indeed, I have an old post on possible candidates), I truly hope that it does not detract from the memorial that John Paul II’s life deserves.