For the First Time in Centuries, Pope Presides Over Pope's Funeral

50K attended service for Benedict XVI
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 5, 2023 5:53 AM CST
50K Mourn Benedict XVI at Vatican Funeral
Members of the church attend the funeral mass for late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023.   (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

With bells tolling, tens of thousands of faithful, political leaders, and the pope himself mourned Benedict XVI, the German theologian who made history by resigning the papacy, at a rare requiem Mass Thursday for a dead pontiff presided over by a living one. The crowd applauded as pallbearers carried Benedict's cypress coffin out of the fog-shrouded St. Peter's Basilica and rested it before the altar in the vast square outside, the AP reports. Pope Francis, wearing the crimson vestments typical of papal funerals, opened the service with a prayer and closed it an hour later by solemnly blessing the simple casket—decorated only with the former pope’s coat of arms. The former Joseph Ratzinger died Dec. 31 at age 95.

Heads of state and royalty, clergy from around the world, and regular people flocked to the ceremony, despite Benedict’s requests for simplicity and official efforts to keep the first funeral for an pope emeritus in modern times low-key. The event was also significant for what it lacked: the feeling of uncertainty that would normally accompany the passing of a pope before a new one is elected. With Francis very much in charge, Benedict’s death marked the end of an unusual decade in which a reigning pope lived alongside a retired one. Ignoring exhortations for decorum at the end, some in the crowd held banners or shouted "Santo Subito!"—"Sainthood Now!"—echoing the chants that erupted during John Paul's 2005 funeral.

The Vatican said some 50,000 people attended the Mass, after some 200,000 paid their respects during the three days of public viewing. Only Italy and Germany were invited to send official delegations, but other leaders took the Vatican up on its 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, a host of patriarchs joined 125 cardinals in the seats to the side of the altar, and the Russian Orthodox Church sent its foreign envoy. Among those attending was Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen, who was given special court permission to attend the funeral. He was detained in May under China's national security law, accused of "colluding with foreign forces" by taking part in Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement.

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Benedict’s close confidants were also in attendance, and the former pope’s longtime secretary, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, bent down and kissed a book of the Gospels that was left open on the coffin before the ceremony began. After the Mass, Benedict’s cypress coffin was placed inside a zinc one, then an outer oak casket before being entombed in the crypt in the grottoes underneath St. Peter’s Basilica that once held the tomb of St. John Paul II before it was moved upstairs. While Thursday's Mass was unusual, it does have some precedent: In 1802, Pope Pius VII presided over the funeral in St. Peter’s of his predecessor, Pius VI, who had died in exile in France in 1799 as a prisoner of Napoleon.

(Read more Pope Benedict XVI stories.)

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