Pope Benedict’s funeral draws thousands of mourners to St. Peter’s Square
VATICAN CITY (AP) — The bells rang Thursday for the funeral of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the German theologian who made history by retiring, as thousands of mourners thronged St. Pierre for a rare requiem mass for a dead pontiff presided over by a living one.
Worshipers cheered as pallbearers lifted Benedict’s cypress coffin from fog-shrouded St. Peter’s Basilica and placed it before the altar. As the red-robed clergy looked on, Benedict XVI’s longtime secretary, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, leaned over and kissed a Gospel book left open on the coffin.
Heads of state and royalty, clergy from around the world and thousands of ordinary people flocked to the Vatican, despite Benedict XVI’s pleas for simplicity and official efforts for the first funeral of a pope emeritus modern times remain discreet.
Many were from Benedict’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.”
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.
Pope Francis praised Benedict’s courage to step down, saying it “opened the door” for other popes to do the same. Francis, for his part, recently said he had already left written instructions outlining the terms under which he, too, would step down.
Francis was presiding over the funeral, which authorities estimated around 100,000 people would attend, more than the initial estimate of 60,000, Italian media reported, citing police security plans.
Only Italy and Germany were invited to send official delegations, but other heads of state and government accepted the Vatican’s offer and came in a “private” capacity. They included several other heads of state, at least four prime ministers and two delegations of royal representatives.
Matteo Colonna, a 20-year-old seminarian from Teramo, Italy, said he attended in part because of the historic nature of the funeral — but it also had personal resonance for him.
“The first spark of my vocation started under the pontificate of Benedict, but it became even stronger under Pope Francis,” Colonna said, as she sat praying in St. Peter’s Square ahead of the funeral. “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 retire.
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”.
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 to be 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. Paul II before his move. upstairs.
Although the ritual is new, it has a precedent: in 1802, Pope Pius VII presided over the funeral at Saint-Pierre of his predecessor, Pius VI, who died in exile in France in 1799 as a prisoner of Napoleon.
Some 200,000 people paid their respects to Benedict during three days of public viewing in the basilica, with one of the last, Brother Rosario Vitale, spending an hour praying near his body. He said Benedict XVI gave him a special dispensation to begin the process of becoming a priest, which was necessary due to a physical disability.
“So today I came here to pray at his grave, at his body and to say ‘thank you’ for my future priesthood, for my ministry,” he said.
Benedict never wanted his retirement to last as long as it did – at nearly 10 years, it was longer than his eight-year pontificate. And the unprecedented situation of a retired pope living alongside a reigning pope has prompted calls for protocols to guide future popes emeritus to avoid confusion over who is really in charge.
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, even though he recognized earlier than most the “dirtiness” of priests who raped children, and in fact laid the groundwork for the Holy See 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 still held him responsible for the crisis, for failing to sanction any bishop who moved the abusers and identifying him as embodying the clerical system that has long protected the institution from victimization.
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 law of the Church” stipulating zero tolerance for clergy abuse.
“Any celebration that marks the lives of abuse enablers like Benedict must end,” said leading US abuse survivor group, SNAP.
Associated Press reporter Trisha Thomas contributed.
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