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

VATICAN CITY — With bells ringing, thousands of worshipers, political leaders and the pope himself mourned Benedict XVI, the German theologian who made history by stepping down, in a rare requiem mass on Thursday for a dead pontiff presided by a living.

The crowd cheered as pallbearers carried Benedict’s cypress coffin out of the fog-shrouded St. Peter’s Basilica and laid it before the altar in the vast square outside. Pope Francis, dressed in the crimson vestments typical of papal funerals, opened the service with a prayer and closed it an hour later by solemnly blessing the simple coffin – decorated only with the former pope’s coat of arms.

Heads of state and royalty, clergy from around the world and thousands of ordinary people flocked to the ceremony, despite Benedict XVI’s pleas for simplicity and official efforts to make the first funeral of a pope emeritus of modern times remain discreet.

Many of the mourners hailed from Benedict XVI’s native Bavaria and wore traditional clothing, including boiled wool coats to protect against the morning cold.

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

Ignoring the urgings for decorum at the end, some in the crowd held up banners or shouted “Santo Subito!” – “Holiness now!” – echoing the spontaneous chants that erupted during the funeral of Saint John Paul II in 2005.

Elder 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 the doctrine of the Church. But he will go down in history for a singular revolutionary act that changed the future of the papacy: he retired, the first pope in six centuries to do so.

Francis praised Benedict XVI’s courage to step down, saying it “opened the door” for other popes to do the same.

The Vatican said around 50,000 people attended the Mass, after some 200,000 paid their respects over the three days of public viewing.

Only Italy and Germany were invited to send official delegations, but other leaders accepted the Vatican’s offer and came in a “private” capacity. They included several heads of state, at least four prime ministers and two delegations of royal representatives. Additionally, a crowd of patriarchs joined 125 cardinals in the seats next to the altar, and the Russian Orthodox Church sent its foreign emissary.

Among those present was Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen, who received special permission from the court to attend the funeral. Zen was arrested in May on suspicion of collusion with foreign forces under a Chinese national security law, after clashing with authorities over his participation in a now-silenced democracy movement. His passport was revoked when he was detained.

Benedict’s close confidants were also present, and the former pope’s longtime secretary, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, leaned over and kissed a Gospel book 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 historic nature of the funeral — but also because it had personal resonance for him.

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

Early Thursday, the Vatican released the official life story of Benedict, a short Latin document 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 stoles.

The document paid great attention to the historic resignation of Benedict XVI and called him “Pope Emeritus”, quoting verbatim the Latin words he spoke on February 11, 2013, when he announced that he would take his retirement.

The document, known as the “rogito” or deed, also cited his theological and papal legacy, including his outreach to Anglicans and Jews and his efforts to address clergy sex abuse “continually calling on the church to conversion, prayer, penance and purification”.

Francis did not mention Benedict’s specific heritage in his homily and only mentioned his name once, in the last line, instead delivering a meditation on Jesus’ willingness to entrust himself to the will. of God.

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

During St. John Paul II’s quarter century as pope, Ratzinger led a crackdown on dissent as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, taking action against leftist liberation theology which spread in Latin America in the 1970s and against dissent. theologians and nuns who did not take the Vatican’s hard line on issues like sexual morality.

His legacy was marred by the clergy sex abuse scandal, though he recognized earlier than most the “dirtiness” of priests who raped children, and in fact laid the groundwork for the Holy See to punish them.

As cardinal and pope, he passed sweeping ecclesiastical legislation that resulted in the defrocking of 848 priests from 2004 to 2014, roughly his pontificate with one year on each end. But abuse survivors have always blamed him for the crisis, for failing to sanction any bishop who moved the abusers, refusing to mandate the reporting of sex crimes to the police and identifying him as embodying the clerical system that has long protected the institution over victims.

A group representing survivors of German clergy abuse has called on German officials attending Benedict XVI’s funeral to demand more action from the Vatican against sexual abuse. Eckiger Tisch called on German leaders to demand that Francis enact a “universal church law” stipulating zero tolerance for clergy abuse.

“Any celebration that marks the lives of abuse enablers like Benedict must end,” added the leading US abuse survivor group, SNAP.

The funeral ritual itself is modeled on the code used for dead popes, but with some modifications given that Benedict was not a reigning pontiff at his death.

After mass, Benedict’s cypress coffin was placed in a zinc coffin, then an outer oak coffin before being buried in the crypt in the caves below St. Peter’s Basilica which once housed the tomb of St. John Paul II before it was moved upstairs. .

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


Associated Press reporter Trisha Thomas contributed.

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