Pope’s Storied Footmen Gladly Bear the Burden
On Friday, the pallbearer’s heart was heavy.
But his back and his faith were strong.
As he pulled on the white gloves, adjusted the long-tailed formal jacket and draped the ceremonial medallion around his neck, he felt himself in the powerful grip of history and ritual.
Like his father and his grandfather before him, the pallbearer belongs to the sediari pontifici: the pope’s footmen. These members of a select 600-year-old brotherhood presented solemn, dignified visages of mourning to the world during John Paul II’s funeral.
“I don’t have words to explain the sensation I felt when we carried him,” said the pallbearer, who asked not to be identified because of the Vatican’s tradition of discretion. “I suppose it was slightly heavy physical work. But the honor was greater than the burden.”
In addition to serving as pallbearers, the footmen for centuries have carried pontiffs on an ornate throne of wood, silk and ivory known as the sedia gestatoria. It was borne above the heads of the crowds during coronations, processions and other ceremonies.
After John Paul II was elected in 1978, he discarded the throne in favor of the “popemobile” and, in his final years, a motorized platform.
“John Paul I still used the throne,” the pallbearer said. “John Paul II didn’t use it anymore. He was more modern. Times had changed, I guess. He didn’t want us to carry him around on our shoulders.”
There are currently two dozen footmen. Most often, their duties include staffing the papal antechamber, where they receive heads of state and ambassadors and usher them into audiences with the pope.
It was only this week that the footmen carried John Paul II for the first time -- in death. Twelve of them brought his wooden coffin down the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica for the funeral Mass. Afterward, they hoisted the coffin again, marched slowly back up the steps, turned in a circle to give the crowd an opportunity for a farewell look, then went inside to lay John Paul to rest.
“The most difficult part was turning around,” said Adalberto Leschiutta, 65, the deacon of the footmen. “But the sediari were really excellent. I am very proud of them. I told them they transmitted a universal image that reached the apex of sacredness.”
Leschiutta was the bespectacled, balding man who led the pallbearers Friday and when they carried the pope’s body from the papal apartments to the basilica Monday. He said he chose the 12 who were in the best physical condition and arranged them in order of height, the shortest in front to better adjust the bier on the stairs.
He also choreographed their moves, and as they walked he murmured instructions like a sotto voce drill sergeant.
The pallbearers showed poise amid the emotion of the event and the knowledge that the world, quite literally, was watching.
“You can imagine the tension for me,” Leschiutta said, looking weary and contemplative at his home Friday evening. “It’s logical because this was a man whom I had served for six years.”
One pallbearer who had carried the pope’s bier Monday was not feeling well and asked to be replaced at the funeral, Leschiutta said.
A retired banker, Leschiutta became deacon of the footmen six years ago. The footmen’s ages range from 28 to 80 and the posts remain in families for generations.
“My father did it, and my grandfather,” said the pallbearer. “If you don’t have a son, you might pass it on to a nephew. There is no formal training. You have to be very devout. You have to present certificates from a parish priest, just as you do for any job in the Vatican.”
The eldest footman, Giuseppe Strini, has held his post for 57 years, continuing an uninterrupted line of service that dates back to his ancestor Pietro, who joined the corps in 1854.
The footmen grew out of a laymen’s brotherhood known as the palafrenieri, or grooms, that dates to about 1378. Also known as confraternities, the groups were guilds uniting artisans and workmen close to the church who often participated in religious missions, according to Msgr. Raymond Kupke, a professor of church history at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.
Notable confraternities include the hooded, elaborately costumed marchers in Easter week processions in Seville, Spain, and Italian American groups that carry icons during religious feasts in America’s urban Little Italys, Kupke said.
In 1603, the papal footmen commissioned the artist Caravaggio to undertake a painting of the virgin and child, a work now known as the “Madonna of the Palafrenieri,” exhibited in Rome’s Borghese Gallery. The brotherhood acquired a patron, St. Anne, and its own small church: the medieval, earth-colored Santa Caterina della Rota in a quiet, secluded plaza across the Tiber River from the Vatican.
The role of the sediari pontifici, the bearers of the papal throne, evolved during the second half of the 20th century as popes began to shed the most ostentatious trappings.
Pope Paul VI got rid of the regal canopy and ostrich-feather fans that had always accompanied the throne. But he kept the sedia itself for the practical reason that it made him easier to see at crowded events.
John Paul I, who made history by refusing to wear the papal crown, used the portable throne only during the ceremony that began his monthlong papacy, Kupke said. And John Paul II rejected the throne altogether.
“He was so young and vigorous that he was not a likely person to be carried around in a chair,” Kupke said. John Paul’s papacy ushered in a modern era featuring the popemobile and giant TV screens, which rendered the throne, and its bearers, somewhat anachronistic.
As a result, the footmen became less visible and active. Only four footmen devote themselves exclusively to the job for pay, while the rest are volunteers, Leschiutta said.
But when they performed their solemn duty Friday, they shouldered a tradition to which they remain devoted.
“It’s a job that has been done for six centuries,” the pallbearer said. “Obviously, it’s an honor.”
Times staff writer Janet Stobart contributed to this report.