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.
It was the first occasion in modern times that a pope presided over his predecessor’s funeral — and the first ever for someone to abdicate. Benedict, the first pope in nearly 600 years to resign rather than hold office for life, died on December 31 at age 95 in a monastery in Vatican City.
It was an occasion characterized by simplicity, as desired by the former pope. “It’s hard to have a simple service in St. Peter’s Square, but I think you can,” 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 circumstance for a former pope, but I think within the guidelines of what Pope Emeritus Benedict wanted, it worked out very well.”
About 50,000 people attended the funeral in St. Peter’s Square, according to Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni.
The turnout compared to an estimated 1.1 million people for the funeral of Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II. In 2005, there were 500,000 people in St. Peter’s Square and the surrounding area, with another 600,000 watching on video screens in other parts of Rome.
John Paul II’s funeral was the largest ever gathering of heads of state outside the United Nations. The delegations included nine monarchs and 70 presidents and prime ministers.
In the six days between John Paul II’s death and his funeral, an estimated 3 million people came to pay their last respects. Every hour, 21,000 people passed through St. Peter’s Basilica. The average wait time to see the Pope was 13 hours, and at its maximum, the line was 3 miles long.
In pictures: the funeral of former pope Benedict XVI
Dignitaries and religious leaders lined the square, which can hold about 60,000 people, for the ceremony on Thursday. Prime Minister Petr Fiala of the Czech Republic was among those in attendance, according to CNN affiliate CNN Prima.
The ceremony was similar to that of a reigning pope, but with some modifications. Benedict was made 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 Mass on Thursday morning, delivering a homily at about 10 a.m. local time (4 a.m. ET). Members of the mob later took part in communion.
Benedict’s coffin was transported through the basilica and transferred to the Vatican crypt for burial, in the first tomb of John Paul II. The tomb was cleared after the body of John Paul II and the remains were moved to a chapel in the basilica after he became a saint.
As Benedict’s casket was carried into St. Peter’s Basilica, many members of the crowd were heard chanting “Santo Subito,” which is a call to the Pope Emeritus to immediately become a saint.
“God’s faithful people, gathered here, now accompany him and entrust to him 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 him once more the love that is immortal. We want to do this with the same wisdom, tenderness and devotion that he has bestowed on 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 forever,” added Francis.
At the funeral, a band was placed around the coffin during the rite containing the seals of the Apostolic Chamber, the Papal House and the liturgical celebrations. The cypress box was placed in a zinc box that was soldered and sealed, and then placed in a wooden box, which was buried, says Bruni.
The ceremony is expected to end around 11:15 a.m. local time (5:15 a.m. ET).
High-ranking 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 for being more conservative than his successor, Pope Francis, who took steps to soften the Vatican’s stance on abortion and homosexuality, as well as doing more to address the sexual abuse crisis that has engulfed the Church in recent years and clouded. Benedict’s legacy.
The scroll placed in Pope Benedict XVI’s coffin, which is a biography of his life and records some of the key moments of his tenure, is a reminder that he fought “firmly” against pedophilia.
“He fought vigorously against crimes committed by members of the clergy against minors or vulnerable persons, and continually called upon the Church to repent, pray, atone and purify,” the scroll reads.
His death drew tributes from political and religious leaders, including US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the Dalai Lama.
Some 200,000 mourners, including Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and President Sergio Mattarella, paid their respects to the former pontiff during his state in St. Peter’s Basilica earlier this week.
Benedict’s public viewing ended Wednesday, ahead of an intimate religious rite in which items, including coins and medals minted during his tenure and a pontificate scroll, were placed in his sealed cypress coffin prior to burial.
Meloni paid tribute to the ‘enlightened theologian’ emeritus Pope Benedict XVI in a tweet on Thursday.
“Today in St. Peter’s Basilica to say a last goodbye to Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus. Enlightened theologian who leaves us with a spiritual and intellectual legacy of faith, trust and hope,” Meloni tweeted after the funeral, which she attended.
“We have a duty to preserve and honor it always and to carry on its valuable teachings,” she added.
The Italian government announced earlier on Wednesday that Italian and European flags would fly at half-mast on public buildings across Italy on Thursday.