Pope Francis joined tens of thousands of faithful in bidding farewell to Benedict XVI at a rare requiem Mass Thursday for a dead pope presided over by a living one, ending an unprecedented decade for the Catholic Church that was sparked by the German theologian’s decision to retire.
Bells tolled and the crowd applauded as pallbearers carried Benedict’s cypress coffin out of the fog-shrouded St. Peter’s Basilica and placed it before the altar in the square outside. Wearing the crimson vestments typical of papal funerals, Francis opened the service with a prayer and closed it by solemnly blessing the simple casket — decorated only with the former pope’s coat of arms.
In between, Francis made only fleeting reference to Benedict in his homily, offering a meditation on Christ instead of a eulogy of his predecessor’s legacy before the casket was sealed and entombed in the basilica grotto.
Heads of state and royalty, clergy from around the world and thousands of regular people flocked to the subdued ceremony, despite Benedict’s request for simplicity and official efforts to keep the first funeral for a pope emeritus in modern times low-key.
Many mourners hailed from Benedict’s native Bavaria and donned traditional dress, including boiled wool coats to guard against the morning chill.
Ignoring exhortations for decorum at the end, some in the crowd held banners or shouted “Santo Subito!” — “Sainthood Now!” — echoing the spontaneous chants that erupted during St. John Paul II’s 2005 funeral.
The former Joseph Ratzinger, who died Dec. 31 at age 95, is considered one of the 20th century’s greatest theologians and spent his lifetime upholding church doctrine. 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 has praised Benedict’s courage in stepping aside, saying it “opened the door” for other popes to do the same.
Some 50,000 people attended Thursday’s Mass, according to the Vatican, after around 200,000 paid their respects during 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 at the side of the altar, and the Russian Orthodox Church sent its foreign envoy.
Early Thursday the Vatican released the official history of Benedict’s life, a short document in Latin 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 gave ample attention to Benedict’s historic resignation and referred to him as “pope emeritus,” citing verbatim the Latin words he uttered on Feb. 11, 2013, when he announced he would retire.
The document, known as a “rogito” or deed, also cited his theological and papal legacy, including his outreach to Anglicans and Jews and his efforts to combat clergy sexual abuse “continually calling the church to conversion, prayer, penance and purification.”