Papal Coronation

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Pope Pius XII, in coronation robes and wearing the 1877 Papal Tiara, is carried through St. Peter's Basilica on a sedia gestatoria during his coronation in 1939.
Pope Pius XII, in coronation robes and wearing the 1877 Papal Tiara, is carried through St. Peter's Basilica on a sedia gestatoria during his coronation in 1939.

The Papal Coronation was a six-hour ceremony in which a new pope was crowned as head of the Roman Catholic Church and sovereign of Vatican City (and before 1870, head of state of the Papal States). A three-tiered Triple Tiara or Papal Tiara was used in the ceremony, and the new pope would take the papal oath.


Location of the ceremony

The first papal coronations took place in St. John Lateran, the pope's cathedral. However traditionally for hundreds of years papal coronations have taken place in the environs of St. Peter's Basilica, though a number of coronations took place in Avignon during the Avignon papacy. In 1800 Pope Pius VII was crowned in the crowded church of the Benedictine island monastery of San Giorgio, after his late predecessor had been forced into temporary exile during Napoleon Bonaparte's capture of Rome.

Pope John XXIII's coronation in 1958.
Pope John XXIII's coronation in 1958.

All coronations since 1800 have taken place in Rome. Pope Leo XIII was crowned in the Sistine Chapel,[1] as was Pope Benedict XV in 1914, while Pope Pius XI was crowned at the dias in front of the High Altar in St. Peter's Basilica. Pope Pius IX, Pope Pius XII, Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI all were crowned in public on the balcony of the basilica, facing mass crowds assembled below in St. Peter's Square. Pius XII's coronation broke new grounds by being the first coronation to be filmed and the first coronation to be broadcast live on radio. [2]

The 1939 ceremony which lasted for six hours, was attended by leading dignatories; attendants at the 1939 coronation included the Prince of Piedmont as heir to the Italian throne, ex-kings Ferdinand I of Bulgaria and Alfonso XIII of Spain, the Duke of Norfolk (representing King George VI of the United Kingdom) and Irish Taoiseach Éamon de Valera, all in evening dress (white tie and tails).

Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) is crowned at the most recent papal coronation, in 1963.
Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) is crowned at the most recent papal coronation, in 1963.

Pope Paul and the coronation

The last pope to be crowned by this method was Pope Paul VI. Though Pope Paul decided to cease wearing a papal tiara within weeks of his coronation, and laid his own on the altar of St. Peter's Basilica in a gesture of humility, his 1975 Apostolic Constitution, Romano Pontifici Eligendo, explicitly required his successor to have a coronation, stating:

the new pontiff is to be crowned by the senior cardinal deacon.

Nevertheless amid considerable opposition from within the Curia his successor, Pope John Paul I opted not to be crowned, instead choosing to have a less formal Papal Inauguration Mass. [3]

After John Paul I's sudden death following a thirty-three day reign, the new pope, John Paul II, opted to copy his precedessor's low-key ceremony rather than reinstate the papal coronation.

John Paul II and the coronation

Apparently unaware of the detail of Pope Paul's Apostolic Constitution's mandatory requirement for papal coronations, John Paul II, in his homily at his Inauguration Mass, said that that Pope Paul VI had "left his Successors free to decide" whether to wear the papal tiara.[4]

He went on:

Pope John Paul I, whose memory is so vivid in our hearts, did not wish to have the tiara; nor does his Successor wish it today. This is not the time to return to a ceremony and an object considered, wrongly, to be a symbol of the temporal power of the Popes.

Critics and supporters of a return to papal coronations interpreted his words "This is not the time" as indicating either that the time for such ancient ceremonial was over in the post-Vatican II era, or that, weeks of the sudden death of Pope John Paul I and barely six weeks after the previous inauguration, 'today' (his inauguration day) was not the time to revert to the previous ceremony, but that a return to a traditional coronation an option for future popes.

The Humeston New Era (Iowa newspaper) image of the coronation of Pope Benedict XV in the Sistine Chapel in 1914
The Humeston New Era (Iowa newspaper) image of the coronation of Pope Benedict XV in the Sistine Chapel in 1914

John Paul II in his 1996 Apostolic Constitution, Universi Dominici Gregis, left it up to each future pope to decide whether they wanted an inauguration or a coronation. He wrote:

After the solemn ceremony of the inauguration of the pontificate and within an appropriate time...

Nowhere was it stated what form that 'inauguration of a pontificate' would take; both a papal inauguration and a papal coronation technically could be used to inaugurate (ie, ceremonially begin) a pontificate: both ceremonies had been described in the past using such a term. In writing about the 'inauguration of a pontificate' rather than a specific 'inauguration of a pope' the precise form of ceremony future popes may use is left to them individually to decide. John Paul II's only requirement was that some 'solemn ceremony' take place to begin a pontificate.

Conservative criticism of Benedict XVI's decision not to be crowned

In 2005 John Paul II's successor, Pope Benedict XVI disappointed some conservatives when he opted not to use some form of papal coronation but instead to use an adapted version of a papal inauguration.[5] When asked if the new pope, when shown draft plans for his inauguration, had requested any changes, a Vatican spokesman declined to comment.


  1. ^  Contemporary description of the coronation of Pope Leo XIII
  2. ^  John Cornwell, Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII (Viking, 1999) pp. 211-212
  3. ^  David Yallop, In God's Name: An Investigation into the Murder of Pope John Paul I (Corgi, 1985) p.237.
  4. ^  Papal Inauguration Homily of Pope John Paul II, L'Osservatore Romano (Text of the Homily)
  5. ^  Conservative Catholic website critical of Benedict's decision not to be crowned

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