Thousands of mourners filled St. Peter’s Square on Thursday for the funeral of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
They were paying their final respects to the German theologian who made history by withdrawing and participating in a rare requiem mass for a dead pope presided over by a living one.
A thick fog engulfed the Vatican before dawn as civil protection teams and police set up metal detectors and barricades to herd supporters into the square. Police had estimated that some 100,000 people would attend, up from the original estimate of 60,000, Italian media reported.
Pope Francis presided over the funeral, an event that drew heads of state and royalty despite Benedict’s calls for simplicity and the Vatican’s efforts to keep the first emeritus pope’s funeral in modern times low-key. Only Italy and Germany were invited to send official delegations, and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Italian President Sergio Mattarella attended.
Other heads of state and government decided to accept the Vatican’s offer and come in their “private capacity.”
Benedict XVI’s coffin was carried out of the basilica and placed before the altar while the faithful prayed the rosary. The ritual itself was modeled on the code used for dead popes, but with some modifications since Benedict was not a reigning pope when he died.
After the Mass, Benedict cypress coffin was to be placed inside a zinc onethen an outer oak coffin before being entombed in the crypt in the grottoes below the basilica which once held the tomb of St John Paul II before it was moved upstairs to the main basilica.
Some 200,000 people paid homage to Benedict during three days of public wake in Saint Peter’s Basilica, one of the last being Fray Rosario Vitale, who spent an hour praying next to his body. She said Benedict had given her a special dispensation to begin the process of becoming a priest, which was required due to a physical disability.
“So today I came here to pray over his grave, over his body and to say ‘thank you’ for my future priesthood, for my ministry,” he said. “I owe him a lot and this was a real gift to me to be able to pray for an hour in his coffin.”
Former Joseph Ratzinger, who died December 31 at age 95, is considered one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century and spent his life defending the doctrine of the church. But he will go down in history for a singular and revolutionary act that changed the future of the papacy: he retired, the first pope in six centuries to do so.
Francis praised Benedict’s courage in stepping aside when he believed he no longer had the strength to lead the church, saying he “opened the door” for other popes doing the same. Francis, for his part, recently said that he has already left written instructions outlining the conditions under which he too would resign if he became incapacitated.
Benedict never intended his retirement to last as long as it did: almost 10 years was longer than his eight-year pontificate. And the unprecedented situation of a retired pope living next to a reigning one prompted calls for protocols to guide future popes emeritus to avoid any confusion over who is really in charge.
During Saint John Paul II’s quarter century as Pope, the former Joseph Ratzinger led a crackdown on dissent as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, cracking down on left-leaning liberation theology that spread in Latin America in the 1970s. and against dissident theologians and nuns who did not follow the Vatican’s hard line on issues such as sexual morality.
His legacy was marred by the clergy sex abuse scandal, even though he acknowledged earlier than most the “filth” of priests who raped children, and indeed laid the groundwork for the Holy See to punish them. .
As cardinal and pope, he passed sweeping church legislation that resulted in the expulsion of 848 priests between 2004 and 2014, roughly his pontificate with a year on each end. But abuse survivors still held him responsible for the crisis, for failing to sanction any bishops who moved abusers and identifying him as the personification of the clerical establishment that had long protected the institution from victims.