Pope Francis paid tribute to his predecessor former Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday, at a funeral attended by tens of thousands of mourners in St. Peter’s Square.
The funeral marked the first occasion in modern times that a pontiff presided over the funeral from his predecessor, and the first from someone who resigned. Benedict, the first pontiff in nearly 600 years to step down, rather than serve for life, died at age 95 on December 31 in a monastery in Vatican City.
It was an occasion characterized by simplicity, according to the wish of the former Pope. “It’s hard to have a simple service in St. Peter’s Square, but I think it was,” Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest, writer and editor, told CNN’s Max Foster and Bianca Nobilo on CNN Newsroom.
“You have to have some pomp and ceremony for a former pope, but I think within the guidelines of what Pope Emeritus Benedict wanted, he was very successful.”
Some 50,000 people attended the funeral in St. Peter’s Square according to Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni, compared with an estimated 1.1 million people for the funeral of Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II. There were 500,000 people in and around St. Peter’s Square in 2005, and another 600,000 who watched on video screens in other parts of Rome.
John Paul II’s funeral was the largest gathering of heads of state outside the United Nations. The delegations included nine monarchs along with 70 presidents and prime ministers.
During the six days between John Paul II’s death and his funeral, approximately 3 million people turned out to pay their final respects. Every hour, 21,000 people passed through St. Peter’s Basilica. The average wait to see the Pope was 13 hours, and at its peak the line was 3 miles long.
Dignitaries and religious leaders lined the roughly 60,000-capacity plaza Thursday for the ceremony. Prime Minister Petr Fiala of the Czech Republic was among those in attendance, according to CNN Prima, a CNN affiliate.
The ceremony was similar to that of a reigning pope but with a few modifications. Benedict XVI was named pope emeritus during the funeral and the language of some of the prayers was different because he was not the reigning pope when he died.
Francis began leading the Mass on Thursday morning, during which he delivered a homily around 10 a.m. local time (4 a.m. ET). Later, members of the crowd participated in a Communion.
“The faithful people of God, gathered here, now accompanies him and entrusts him with the life of the one who was their shepherd,” Francis said as he delivered the homily.
“Like the women at the grave, we too have come with the fragrance of gratitude and the balm of hope, to show you once more the love that is eternal. We want to do it with the same wisdom, tenderness and devotion that he dedicated to us over the years. Together we want to say: ‘Father, into your hands we commend his spirit.’
“Benedict, faithful friend of the Bridegroom, may your joy be complete when you hear his voice, now and always,” added Francisco.
Benedict XVI’s coffin was carried through the Basilica and will be transferred to the Vatican crypt for burial, in the first tomb of John Paul II. The tomb was evacuated after the body of John Paul II and the remains were moved to a chapel inside the basilica after he became a saint.
As the coffin of Benedict XVI was carried to St. Peter’s Basilica, many members of the crowd could be heard chanting “Santo Subito,” which is a call for the Pope Emeritus to become a saint immediately.
At the time of burial during the rite, a ribbon will be placed around the coffin with the seals of the Apostolic Chamber, the pontifical house and the liturgical celebrations. The cypress coffin will be placed inside a welded and sealed zinc coffin, and then placed inside a wooden coffin, which will be buried.
The ceremony is expected to wrap up around 11:15 a.m. local time (5:15 a.m. ET).
High-profile dignitaries including Queen Sofia of Spain and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will attend the funeral, along with US Ambassador to the Holy See Joe Donelly.
Benedict was elected Pope in April 2005 after the death of John Paul II. He was known to be more conservative than his successor, Pope Francis, who has taken steps to soften the Vatican’s position on abortion and homosexuality, as well as doing more to deal with the sexual abuse crisis that has plunged the church into the last years and cloudy The legacy of Benedict.
The parchment that was deposited inside the coffin of Pope Benedict XVI, which is a biography of his life and mentions some of the most important moments of his mandate, recalls that he fought “firmly” against pedophilia.
“He fought firmly against crimes committed by members of the clergy against minors or vulnerable people, continually calling the Church to conversion, prayer, penance and purification,” the scroll says.
His death drew tributes from political and religious leaders, including US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the Dalai Lama.
About 200,000 mourners, including Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and President Sergio Mattarella, paid their respects to the former pontiff earlier this week during his funeral at St. Peter’s Basilica.
A public wake for Benedict XVI ended on Wednesday, before an intimate religious rite during which items including coins and medals minted during his tenure and a scroll on the pontificate were placed in his sealed cypress coffin before the funeral.
Francis paid tribute to his predecessor during an audience at the Vatican on Wednesday.
“I would like us to join those here with us who pay their respects to Benedict XVI, and direct my thoughts to him, a great teacher of catechism,” he said.
“May it help us to rediscover in Christ the joy of believing and the hope of living.”
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