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Who's buried in Francis' (eventual) tomb?

Pope Francis said in an interview Tuesday that he hopes to be buried in the Basilica of St. Mary Major, a Roman church he has often visited during the decade of his pontificate.

Pope Francis at Rome's St. Mary Major Basilica on January 22, 2019.
Pope Francis prays at the Basilica of St. Mary Major. Credit: Vatican Media.

The pontiff has customarily visited the basilica ahead of trips outside of Rome, and at their conclusion, spending time to dedicate his travel to the Blessed Virgin Mary, especially before the basilica’s famed image of Mary, Salus populi romani.

If he is eventually buried at St. Mary Major, Pope Francis will be the first pope to be interred outside of St. Peter’s Basilica in more than 100 years. 

But he will not be the first pope to be buried in the basilica of St. Mary Major. Six popes are interred in the Church, but the most recent to be buried there died more than 350 years ago.

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So who will share a final papal resting place with Pope Francis?

Here are a few bodies, of popes and non-popes, buried at St. Mary Major:

Pope Clement IX

The most recently buried pope at St. Mary Major, Clement IX had a two-year papacy, which began in 1667, and ended in 1669, with the pontiff’s death.

The tomb of Pope Clement IX in the basilica of St. Mary Major. public domain.

Born Giulio Rospigliosi, Clement IX had been a professor of theology, an official of the Apostolic Signatura, and apostolic nuncio to Spain. But, caught up in the papal politics of his era, Rospigliosi spent the 11-year pontificate of Innocent X — two before him — living mostly in retirement, without assignment.

During the next pontificate, that of Alexander VII, Rospigliosi was made a cardinal, and appointed Vatican Secretary of State. 

Two years later, he was elected to pontificate, nearly unanimously.

Passionate about poetry, drama, and opera, one cardinal joked at his election that Clement IX would “turn the Holy See into a playhouse.”

But instead, he spent much of his two-year papacy in pastoral ministry, hearing regular confessions at St. Peter’s Basilica, visiting hospitals, and allocating alms to Rome’s poor. He also commissioned important works of art, including Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s colonnade at St. Peter’s Basilica. 

He died of a stroke in December 1669, soon after a pilgrimage to the seven basilicas of Rome.

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Pauline Bonaparte

The younger sister of Napoleon Bonaparte, her second husband was a Borghese prince, Camillo Filippo Ludovico Borghese, Prince of Sulmona and of Rossano, Duke and Prince of Guastalla.

“Pauline Bonaparte,” Robert Lefevre, 1809. Public domain.

After Napoleon’s second fall, at the Battle of Waterloo, she moved to Rome, and became close to Pope Pius VII. While her husband lived apart from her for a decade — living in Florence for a decade with a mistress. But three months before Pauline died of tuberculosis, she was reunited with her husband — largely through the pope’s pastoral engagement in their lives.

She died in June 1825, and was buried at St. Mary Major.

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Pope Pius V

Pope Pius V packed a lot into a six year pontificate, which lasted from 1566 until 1572.

The pontiff, a Dominican, was elected three years after the conclusion of the Council of Trent. To implement the council’s decisions, he oversaw the founding of seminaries, published a new breviary, made liturgical reforms, and made efforts to enforce discipline among clergy, especially in Europe.

The pontiff also organized European leaders to defend themselves against the Ottoman Empire, and excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I of England, finding her to be in heresy. 

To some, it might seem ironic that Pope Pius V will share a final resting place with Pope Francis. Both had pontificates marked with concern for liturgy unity. 

Pius V promulgated in 1570 a new Roman Missal, and mandated its use in most parts of the Latin Catholic Church. The Missal of Pius V eventually became known as the Tridentine Mass, because of the call for a missal at the Council of Trent.

Francis, for his part, has restricted the celebration of the Tridentine Mass, urging greater uniformity in celebrating Mass according to the Missal of Pope Paul VI, promulgated in 1970. 

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Pope Sixtus V

Pope Sixtus V, who died in 1590, is likely the last pope to take the name Sixtus, as the next Pope Sixtus would be Sixtus VI, and that’s just a lot of sixes!

The tomb of Pope Sixtus V. public domain.

A member of Conventual Franciscans, Fr. Felice Piergentile was an inquisitor in Venice, and then a part of the Vatican’s diplomatic corps.

For 13 years before he was elected pope, he lived in a forced retirement, as Pope Gregory XIII had effectively banished him from ecclesiastical affairs. But he did spend that time in studies, publishing a critical edition of the works of St. Ambrose of Milan.

After Gregory’s death, Sixtus was elected pontiff, despite his previous banishment from ecclesiastical leadership.

He focused as pope on clerical discipline, and bringing law and order to the papal states — even if his methods were largely seen as too harsh. He also built up the Vatican’s financial reserves, anticipating another crusade, and eventually spent much of the money on infrastructure repairs to the city of Rome. He built roads and bridges, and helped see clean water piped into Rome.

But he also sparked controversy by leveling ancient monuments to build new churches or the city’s infrastructure.

At the same time, Sixtus V oversaw a reorganization of the Roman curia, organizing his collaborators into departments, some of which endure until today.

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Pope Nicholas IV

The tomb of Pope Nicholas IV. public domain.

While Pope Francis is the first pope named Francis, Pope Nicholas IV was the first Franciscan pope. Pope from 1288 until 1292, Nicholas was a compromise candidate, elected after a conclave was deadlocked for almost a year, with several cardinals dying during the election process. 

The pontiff granted to cardinals living in Rome a stipend from the Vatican, in recognition of their service to the Church, and empowered them to oversee the Vatican’s financial management. 

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Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Bernini is one of Italy’s most famous and important sculptors, responsible for sculptures interior to numerous Roman churches, to papal busts, and to the colonnades at St. Peter’s Basilica. 

The grave of Bernini in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. Ebacherdom/wikimedia. Public domain.

At St. Mary Major, Bernini had planned during the pontificate of Clement IX to create a new apse for the basilica, but public outcry stopped the project, over concern that it cost too much, and would destroy well-regarded mosaics. 

In the 1630s, Bernini nearly killed his brother Luigi inside St. Mary Major, a they fought over a married woman with whom they each were having affairs. Bernini, livid over the infidelity of his mistress, had a servant cut her face with a razor. 

But by many accounts, the sculptor underwent a conversion of heart after that incident, and began more sincerely practicing the faith. 

He died in 1680, and was buried in his family’s vault at the Marian basilica.

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