Pope Francis leads Benedict’s funeral as supporters seek sainthood
About 50,000 mourners attend the outdoor ceremony.
VATICAN CITY, Jan 5 (Reuters) – Pope Francis led the funeral of former Pope Benedict on Thursday, gently touching his predecessor’s coffin as he rested on a cane in front of tens of thousands of mourners, with some calling for the pope to felt to become a saint.
Benedict’s death on Saturday ended a decade of past and present popes living side by side in the Vatican and was the first time in more than 200 years that a pontiff had led the service for his predecessor.
His death was a loss for conservatives who wanted a return to a more traditional church symbolized by Benedict, who shocked the world in 2013 by becoming the first pope in 600 years to resign rather than reign forever.
At the end of the funeral in St. Peter’s Square, some people shouted in Italian “Santo Subito!” (Make him a saint now!). It was the same phrase used at the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005, though by many more people then.
Three of the last five popes have been canonized, but only about a third of all popes have been canonized in the Church’s 2,000-year history.
While many leading figures have praised Benedict since his death, criticism has also flowed in, including victims of clergy sexual abuse who have accused him of seeking to protect the Church at all costs.
Francis, who sat for most of the service because of a knee ailment, rose at the end as Benedict’s coffin was carried for a private burial inside St Peter’s Basilica. Lowering his head in silence, Francis briefly touched the coffin.
At 86, Francis, who has been using a wheelchair but shows no signs of slowing down, with trips to Africa and Portugal planned in the coming months, is a year older now than Benedict was when he came out in retirement.
Francis himself has made it clear that he would not hesitate to step down one day if his mental or physical health prevented him from carrying out his duties, but Vatican officials always doubted he could do so while Benedict was still alive.
An account of Benedict’s papacy, along with other items, including Vatican coins minted during his reign, were placed in his coffin. The confession, written in Latin, says Benedict “fought resolutely” against sexual abuse by clergy in the Church.
Although Benedict largely avoided public appearances after his resignation, he remained a standard-bearer for Catholic conservatives who felt alienated by reforms introduced by Francis, including the crackdown on the old Latin Mass.
After the service, the coffin was wrapped in red ribbons in the shape of a cross. Workers later placed him in a zinc coffin and sealed it, Vatican photographs showed. The two were then placed in a wooden coffin, which was lowered into a crypt.
People from all over the world, many from Benedict’s native Germany, had arrived in the early hours to say goodbye. Italian police said around 50,000 people were in the square, including several heads of state and some European royalty.
“It’s a sad but meaningful day. I wanted to be here so much that I could feel it in my heart,” said an Italian woman who gave only her first name, Marianna.
Dorotea Dadaeki, a Rwandan woman living in Rome, said: “I told myself that I had to come and attend the Holy Mass to accompany him in prayer.”
Xavier Mora, 24, a Spaniard preparing for the priesthood, said he had studied Benedict’s theology and had “great love and appreciation for him”.
About 200,000 people turned out before Benedict’s body as it lay in state for three days until Wednesday night.
The service began when, to the sound of bells, 12 bell bearers carried the coffin carrying Benedict’s remains out of the basilica and placed it on the ground in front of the largest church in Christendom. The bells also rang in German cities.
The last time a sitting pope presided over the funeral of a predecessor was in 1802, when Pius VII led the service for Pius VI, whose body was returned to the Vatican after he died in 1799 in exile.
In his homily read as he sat before the altar, Francis used more than a dozen biblical references and Church scriptures in which he appeared to compare Benedict to Jesus, including his last words before he died on the cross: O Father, in your hands I commend my soul.”
During the Mass together with 125 cardinals, 200 bishops and about 3,700 priests, Francis spoke of the “wisdom, gentleness and devotion that he gave us over the years”.
He mentioned Benedict by name only once, in the last line, saying, “Benedict, faithful friend of the Bridegroom, (Jesus) let your joy be full as you hear his voice, now and forever!”
More than 1,000 Italian security personnel were called in to help protect the event, and the airspace around the small Holy See was closed for the day. Italy ordered flags across the country to be flown at half-staff.
At his request, Benedict was buried in the Vatican’s underground grottoes in the niche where Pope John XXIII and then John Paul II were first buried before their remains were moved to more prominent locations in the basilica above.
Writing by Philip Pullella and Crispian Balmer; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Muralikumar Anantharaman and Alison Williams
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