VATICAN (AFP): Tens of thousands of mourners gathered Thursday for the funeral of former pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican, led by his successor Pope Francis in an event unprecedented in modern times.
The body of the German theologian, who in 2013 became the first pontiff in six centuries to resign, was laid out in a simple cypress coffin in front of St Peter’s Basilica, where his remains will later be laid in the crypt.
For the first time in modern history, the proceedings were led by a sitting pope, Francis, who will deliver the homily.
On either side of the coffin were seated red-clad cardinals and dignitaries from around the world, among them heads of state including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
Tens of thousands of members of public also attended, many of them queuing before dawn to pay their respects to Benedict, who died last Saturday aged 95.
“Benedict is a bit like my father, so I had to pay homage to him,” said Cristina Grisanti, a 59-year-old from Milan, who hailed the former pope’s “purity, his candour, his mildness”.
Many Germans were also in the crowd, paying tribute to Germany’s first pope in 1,000 years, whose funeral is being marked back home by the ringing of church bells across the country.
“We owe him so much. We want to show that we stand behind him,” said Benedikt Rothweiler, 34, who came from Aachen with his family.
“We actually know too little about Benedict. He always accepted everything the way God wants it. This is a good example for us humans.”
An estimated 195,000 people have already paid their respects during three days of lying in state at the basilica, the Vatican said, while up to 100,000 were expected for Thursday’s funeral.
Benedict will be interred in a tomb in the crypt beneath the basilica, where John Paul II’s body lay before it was moved for his beatification in 2011. He was made a saint in 2014.
– TWO POPES –
Benedict was a brilliant theologian but a divisive figure who alienated many Catholics with his staunch defence of conservative doctrine on issues such as abortion.
His eight years as head of the worldwide Catholic Church was also marked by crises, from in-fighting within the Vatican to the global scandal of clerical sex abuse and its cover-up.
When he quit, Benedict said he longer had the “strength of mind and body” necessary for the task, retiring to a quiet life in a monastery in the Vatican gardens.
His death brought an end to an unprecedented situation of having two “men in white” — he and Francis — living in tiny city state.
He and Francis, an Argentine Jesuit, were said to get on well, but Benedict’s later interventions meant he stayed a standard-bearer for conservative Catholics who did not like his successor’s more liberal stance.
The last time a pope presided over the funeral of his predecessor was in 1802, when Pius VII led the ceremony for Pius VI — but the circumstances were very different.
Pius VI died in 1799 in exile, a prisoner of France, and was buried in Valence. His successor had his remains exhumed and brought back to Italy, before he was treated to a papal funeral at St Peter’s.
– SECURITY OPERATION –
Beyond St Peter’s, many of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics were expected to follow the funeral proceedings on television and the radio.
In the majority Catholic Philippines, churches held requiem masses for the former pontiff, including at Malolos Cathedral near the capital Manila.
“This is an unexplainable feeling to witness this,” said Cherry Castro, 67, who was among around 500 gathered for the special ceremony.
Portugal has declared a national day of mourning on Thursday, while in Italy, flags will be flown at half-mast on public buildings.
Around 1,000 police provided security at the funeral, bolstered by numerous civilians from Italy’s civil protection service, while more than 1,000 journalists are accredited.
The only official delegations were from Germany and Italy.
But other dignitaries, including Belgian and Spanish royals, the presidents of Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Hungary, Slovenia and Togo, and the premiers of the Czech Republic, Gabon and Slovakia among others attended in a personal capacity.
The multi-lingual service with a Latin mass followed traditional papal funerals, with a few changes to prayers and readings to reflect Benedict’s status as emeritus pope.
Before being laid in the crypt, his cypress coffin will be placed first inside a zinc coffin, then a wooden case.
As is traditional, coins and medals minted during his papacy and a written text describing his pontificate, sealed in a metal cylinder, will be placed alongside his body.