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Catholics in the US unite to mourn Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

By AJ Willingham, CNN

The death of a pope is a unique circumstance in the Catholic Church. The death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the first pope in modern history to resign his position before his passing, is even more so.

As Catholics around the world prepare for his funeral and burial, Catholics in the United States are turning to a special set of prayers and displays of mourning that are reserved specifically for the death of one of the most important leaders in their faith.

Are Catholics supposed to mourn differently for a Pope Emeritus?

The Catholic Church has pretty clear rules for what to do when a pope dies. However, Benedict XVI resigned in 2013 and was succeeded by the current pontiff, Pope Francis. Benedict was the first pope to resign from his position in more than 600 years, and that gave him a special status known as Pope Emeritus — essentially, a retired pope.

In light of this unusual circumstance, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a set of guidelines that clarified what Catholic leaders and churches are supposed to do.

“Unless the Holy See itself specifies otherwise, the presumption is that the customary prayers and practices observed at the death of a Pope should take place,” the guidelines read. So far, the Holy See — which refers to the current Pope Francis’ role as Bishop of Rome, has not given any special guidance.

Jo Ann Zuñiga, a representative of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, confirmed to CNN that its leadership is treating the event as they would the death of any other pope, and that the USCCB holds the ultimate guidance on the matter.

“The only difference is that there is, of course, no need to elect a new pontiff in this case,” she said.

What kind of special protocols are churches and worshipers observing?

The USCCB and other Catholic leaders have recommended several prayers, protocols and types of services that Catholic worshipers can participate in around the time of Benedict XVI’s funeral.

Prayers: Upon his death, the leadership body called for common Catholic prayers like the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be to the Father, as well as the Recitation of the Rosary — a prayer that is typically said while holding a rosary, a piece of religious jewelry.

Tributes: “Churches may display a portrait of the late Holy Father with black bunting and church bells may be tolled,” the guidance reads. “Priests are essentially captains of their own ship, so it is up to them as to what services they hold and what else they choose to do in (Benedict XVI’s) memory,” says Zuñiga. On social media, priests have been sharing photos of memorials within their parishes, all bearing some likeness of the late pontiff, surrounded by black shrouds, candles or flowers. At St. Anne’s Shrine in Fall River, Massachusetts, on the day of Benedict XVI’s death, bells tolled 95 times in a row: One for each year of his life.

Special services: Benedict XVI’s funeral will be held on Thursday, January 5 in the Vatican. Given time differences, bishops and archbishops (who act as leaders for church regions, known as dioceses) are encouraging Catholic priests to hold special memorials for Benedict on or around the date of his funeral. There are specific forms of worship, called liturgies, that priests can use for such an occasion.

Special vestments: In many Christian denominations, the color of the vestments worn by church leaders correspond to the time in the liturgical season, or reflect a special event. The UCCSB has recommended priests wear red vestments for any mass specifically honoring Benedict XVI.

“It is customary for red vestments to be worn at a Mass for the Dead offered for a Pope since we are mourning the death of the successor of the Apostle Peter,” their guidance reads.

The tradition of red as the mourning color for a pope has its roots in ancient Byzantine funeral practices.

Nine days of mourning: After the death of a Pope, the Catholic Church observes an ancient ritual known as the “novemdiales,” which calls for nine days of mourning. Why nine? The Novena, a related type of Catholic prayer or supplication, is based on the biblical account of the days following Jesus’ death and ascension, during which his mother Mary and others prayed for nine days. Interestingly enough, the number shows up in related traditions as well: In Judaism, The Nine Days refer to an annual period of mourning and fasting. In Ancient Rome, mourning for the dead traditionally lasted nine days.

Before the Pope Emeritus’ death, there was some uncertainty as to whether the Catholic version of the ritual would be observed, since he was not a sitting pope. However, the UCCSB has confirmed that Catholic leaders in the US will observe it with calls for prayer and events like lectures and community service endeavors.

How else are American Catholics getting involved?

Archbishops across the country have announced special memorial services for Pope Emeritus Benedict in the days around his funeral in the Vatican. In Chicago, which is home to one of the largest Catholic populations in the country, the Archdiocese is holding memorial masses in each of the area’s six sub-regions. About 40% of US Catholics are Hispanic, according to a 2014 study. Many memorial events, like an English and Spanish language rosary vigil held by two bishops in the Dallas area, reflect this important facet of the faith.

The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston said their archbishop, Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, will help celebrate Benedict XVI’s memorial mass in person. The “Cardinal” in DiNardo’s name refers to his status as a cardinal in the Catholic Church, one of the highest ranks of clergy and one that carries international weight. Cardinals assist the Pope with church duties from their home countries, and have the power to elect a new Pope.

For those who can’t make a mass, or want to be as close to the proceedings in Rome as possible, various Catholic outlets are live-streaming the Vatican mass, broadcasting it over the radio, and running repeat cable presentations to lessen the burden of the mass’ 9:30 a.m. start time — which translates to 3:30 a.m. ET.

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