To lead the service, Pope Francis rolled into the square in a wheelchair. The pontiff, troubled by a bad knee, sat in a chair and looked down on the coffin, slightly hunched and glum, while Latin choirs sang.
On Thursday, twelve pallbearers carried Pope Benedict’s wooden coffin out of St. Peter’s Basilica to be laid to rest in front of thousands of devoted followers gathered in the square for his funeral.
In honor of Benedict, a hero to conservative Roman Catholics who shocked the world by resigning nearly a decade ago, applause broke out across the vast, cobbled esplanade, which was shrouded in mist.
To lead the service, Pope Francis rolled into the square in a wheelchair. As choirs sang in Latin, the pontiff sat in a chair with a sore knee and looked down on the coffin, slightly hunched and glum.
The outdoor ceremony was attended by clergy from all over the world, a few heads of state, and thousands of faithful as the sun slowly broke through the fog.
The event was guarded by more than 1,000 Italian security guards, and airspace around the tiny Holy See was closed off for the day. Italy mandated that the country’s flags be flown at half staff.
Germans in traditional Bavarian attire carrying the flags and standards of the region of Germany where Benedict was born were among those present at the funeral.
Benedict, a world-renowned theologian, died on Saturday at the age of 95 in a monastery within the Vatican gardens. He moved there after becoming the first pontiff in 600 years to step down, paving the way for Pope Francis’ election, who has proven to be a more reformist and hands-on leader.
“Despite the fact that at our age we were simply youngsters when he was pope, he made some meaningful difference,” Xavier Mora, 24, a Spaniard who is reading up for the ministry in Rome, told Reuters as he moved toward the square with two different seminarians.
He stated, “We have studied his theology for three years, and even though we did not know him personally, we have great affection and regard for him.”
On Wednesday evening, the body was placed in a plain cypress wood coffin in preparation for the funeral. The coffin also contained a one-page account of Benedict’s papacy and other items, such as Vatican coins minted under his rule.
According to the three-page Latin account of his life and papacy, he “fought with firmness” against clergy sexual abuse in the Church.
Since his death, a number of influential people have praised Benedict, but he has also been criticized, including by clergy sexual abuse victims who have said that he was trying to protect the Church at any cost.
The coffin will be transported back inside the basilica after the service and sealed in a second wooden casket using zinc.
Only Italy and Germany, Benedict’s home country, sent official delegations on Thursday because he was no longer the head of state at the time of his death.
In private capacity, 13 other heads of state and government, including the king and queen of Belgium, will attend. Ambassadors to the Holy See were representing the majority of nations.
It is a far cry from the most recent papal funeral, which took place in 2005 and saw over a million people throng the streets surrounding the Vatican to pay their respects to John Paul II, Benedict’s charismatic predecessor.
Since John Paul was credited with bringing an end to the Cold War, Benedict was likely to rule in the shadow of him. However, during his time in charge, he attempted to resolve issues, such as widespread cleric sexual abuse, that the Church had ignored or covered up in previous decades.
After eight years in the position, Benedict resigned in 2013, shocking the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics by stating that he was no longer strong enough to lead the Church due to his “advanced age.”
Francis has made it abundantly clear that he would not hesitate to resign at any time if his mental or physical health made it impossible for him to carry out his responsibilities. However, officials at the Vatican have always questioned Francis’ ability to do so while Benedict was alive.
Over the past three days, almost 200,000 people have passed Benedict’s body dressed in a mitre and red vestments, his hands wrapped in a rosary, which was placed on a bier in St. Peter’s Basilica without any papal regalia. Even though Benedict largely avoided public appearances in subsequent years, he remained a standard-bearer for Catholic conservatives, who felt alienated by reforms ushered in by Francis, including cracking down on the old Latin Mass.
Benedict will be buried in the Vatican’s underground grottoes in the niche where Popes John XXIII and Paul II were buried before their remains were moved to more prominent locations in the basilica above, per his request.