In what is clearly an unprecedented event in recent history, Pope Francis on Thursday presided over the funeral of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, at the Vatican.
The former Pope, the first pontiff in six centuries to resign, died 31 December 2022, age 95.
Prior to his death on Saturday, there were speculations regarding the nature the funeral would take, given that no sitting Pope in recent history had had to preside over the funeral of his predecessor.
The last time a pope presided over the funeral of his predecessor was in 1802, when Pius VII led the ceremony for Pius VI, who had died in 1799 in exile, a prisoner of France, and 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.
But the speculations were laid to rest on Thursday as Pope Francis led Benedict XVI’s funeral in front of tens of thousands of mourners in St Peter’s Square.
Cardinals, archbishops, bishops, thousands of priests and nuns, and dignitaries from around the world gathered to say goodbye to the German theologian, including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
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, while there were official delegations from Germany and Italy.
Some estimated 50,000 people gathered in the square for the funeral, according to police, many of them having queued up since dawn to bid farewell.
It was also estimated that some 195,000 people had already paid their respects earlier when the body lay in state.
Pope Francis, who gave the homily in Italian as part of a multi-lingual service with a Latin mass, said in tribute to his predecessor, “Benedict… may your joy be complete as you hear his (God’s) voice, now and forever!”
At the end of the service, which followed traditional papal funerals, with a few changes to prayers and readings to reflect Benedict’s status as emeritus Pope, Francis made the sign of the cross over Benedict’s simple cypress wood coffin and bowed his head, before 12 besuited pallbearers carried it into St Peter’s Basilica.
Benedict XVI will be buried in a tomb in the crypt beneath the basilica, where Pope John Paul II’s body lay in state before it was moved for his beatification in 2011.
Before being laid in the crypt, his cypress coffin woulf 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, would be placed alongside his body.
Benedict XVI, born Joseph Ratzinger, resigned the papacy in 2013 after eight years in the saddle, citing his failing “strength of mind and body” necessary for the task. He thereafter retired to a quiet life in a monastery in the Vatican gardens.
In Germany, Benedict’s birthplace, church bells rang out across country as the funeral finished on Thursday, while many Germans were also at the Vatican. He was the first German Pope in 1,000 years.
Benedict was a brilliant theologian, but his staunch defence of conservative doctrine on issues such as abortion alienated many Catholics. His eight-year reign was also marked by crises, from in-fighting within the Vatican to the global scandal of clerical sex abuse and its cover-up.
His death ended an unprecedented situation of having two “men in white” — he and Francis — living in the tiny city state.