Thousands mourn Benedict XVI at the funeral celebrated by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Basilica

VATICAN CITY — Amid bells pealed, thousands of believers, political leaders and the pope himself mourned the death of Benedict XVI, the German theologian who made history with his resignation, at a rare requiem mass Thursday for a dead pope presided over by a living one.

The crowd applauded as pallbearers carried Benedict’s cypress coffin out of fog-shrouded St. Peter’s Basilica and placed it in front of the altar in the expansive plaza outside. Pope Francis, wearing the crimson robes typical of papal funerals, opened the service with a prayer and closed an hour later with the solemn blessing of the plain coffin, decorated only with the former pope’s coat of arms.

Heads of state and kings, clergymen from around the world and thousands of ordinary people flocked to the ceremony, despite Benedict’s pleas for simplicity and official efforts to keep the first funeral for a pope emeritus low key in modern times.

Many mourners were from Benedict’s native Bavaria, and dressed in traditional clothing, including boiled wool coats, to protect against the morning chill.

“We came to pay homage to Benedict and wanted to be here today to say goodbye,” said Raymond Mainar, who traveled to the funeral from a small village east of Munich. “He was a very good Pope.”

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Some in the crowd ignored the warnings of decency at the end, holding up banners or shouting “Santo Subito!” – “Sanctuary now!” – an echo of the spontaneous chants that erupted during the 2005 funeral of St. John Paul II.

The former Joseph Ratzinger, who died on December 31 at the age of 95, is considered one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century and spent his life defending church doctrine. But he will go down in history for a unique, revolutionary act that changed the future of the papacy: he retired, the first pope to do so in six centuries.

Francis has vowed Benedict’s courage to step aside and said he has “opened the door” for other popes to do the same.

The Vatican said about 50,000 people attended the mass after about 200,000 paid their respects during the three days of public viewing.

Only Italy and Germany were invited to send official delegations, but other heads of state accepted his offer and came in their “private capacity”. They included several heads of state, at least four prime ministers and two delegations of royal representatives. In addition, along with 125 cardinals, a bevy of patriarchs sat in the seats near the altar, and the Russian Orthodox Church sent its foreign envoy.

Among those present was Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong, who was granted special permission by the court to attend the funeral. Zen was arrested in May on suspicion of collaborating with foreign forces under China’s national security law after falling out with authorities over his involvement in a now-silenced pro-democracy movement. His passport was confiscated when he was arrested.

Benedict’s close confidants were also in attendance, and the former Pope’s longtime secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, leaned forward and kissed a gospel book that was left open on the coffin before the ceremony began.

Matteo Colonna, a 20-year-old seminarian from Teramo, Italy, said he came partly because of the historical nature of the funeral – but also because it had personal meaning for him.

“The first spark of my vocation began under the pontificate of Benedict, but then grew even stronger under Pope Francis,” Colonna said while praying at dawn in St. Peter’s Square. “I see a continuity between these two popes and the fact that Francis is celebrating the funeral in memory of Benedict today is a historic event.”

Early Thursday, the Vatican released the official life story of Benedict, a short document in Latin that was placed in a metal cylinder in his coffin before it was sealed, along with the coins and medallions minted during his papacy and his pallium stole.

The document paid close attention to Benedict’s historic resignation, calling him “pope emeritus,” citing verbatim the Latin words he uttered on February 11, 2013, when announcing his resignation.

The document, known as the “rogito” or charter, also cited his theological and papal legacy, including his commitment to Anglicans and Jews and his efforts to combat clergyman sexual abuse “which continually leads the church to conversion, prayer, repentance and calls for purification”.

Francis did not mention Benedict’s special legacy in his homily, using his name only once, in the last line, instead meditating on Jesus’ willingness to entrust himself to God’s will.

“Clinging to the last words of the Lord and to the testimony of his whole life, we too, as an ecclesial community, want to follow in his footsteps and entrust our brother into the hands of the Father,” said Francis at the end.

During the quarter-century of John Paul II as Pope, Ratzinger, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, led a crackdown on dissent, targeting the left-leaning liberation theology that was spreading in Latin America in the 1970s and dissent theologians and scholars Nuns who didn’t follow the Vatican’s hard line on sexual morals.

His legacy was tarnished by the clergyman sex abuse scandal, though he recognized earlier than most the “filth” of priests who raped children and actually laid the groundwork for the Holy See to punish them.

As cardinal and pope, he passed sweeping church law that resulted in 848 priests being impeached from 2004 to 2014, roughly his pontificate with a year on either end. But abuse survivors still blamed him for the crisis for his failure to sanction a bishop who circulated abusers, refused to order sex crimes to be reported to police, and identified him as an embodiment of the clerical system that powered the institution protected from victims for a long time.

A group representing survivors of abuse by German clergy has urged German officials attending Benedict’s funeral to demand more action from the Vatican against sex abuse. Eckiger Tisch called on German leaders to demand a “universal church law” from Francis mandating zero tolerance in dealing with abuse by clergy.

“Any celebration marking the lives of abuse workers like Benedict must end,” added major US abuse survivors group SNAP.

The burial ritual itself is modeled after the code used for dead popes, but with some modifications given, Benedict was not an acting pope when he died.

After Mass, Benedict’s cypress coffin was placed in a zinc coffin and then in an outer oak coffin before being buried in the crypt in the Grottoes beneath St was relocated above.

Though unusual, Thursday’s Mass has a precedent: in 1802, Pope Pius VII officiated at the funeral of his predecessor Pius VI. in St. Peter’s Basilica, who died in exile in France in 1799 as a prisoner of Napoleon.


Associated Press journalist Trisha Thomas contributed.

Copyright © 2023 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. Thousands mourn Benedict XVI at the funeral celebrated by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Basilica

Laura Coffey

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