The historic funeral of Pope Benedict XVI took place on Thursday at the Vatican- the first time in more than 200 years that a pope has celebrated the funeral of his predecessor.
Pope Benedict XVI “spread and testified to” the Gospel his entire life, Pope Francis told an estimated 50,000 people gathered for his predecessor’s funeral Mass. Cardinal Vincent Nichols joined around 120 cardinals, another 400 bishops and 3,700 priests who concelebrated.
“Like the women at the tomb, we too have come with the fragrance of gratitude and the balm of hope, in order to show him once more the love that is undying,” Pope Francis said in his homily.
The previous occasion a living pope led the funeral of his predecessor was in 1802. On that occasion, Pope Pius VII celebrated the funeral of Pius VI after his remains were returned to Rome when he died in exile in France in 1799.
Pope Benedict, who retired in 2013, had requested his funeral be simple; the only heads of state invited to lead delegations were those of Italy and his native Germany.
However, many dignitaries, including Queen Sofia of Spain and King Philippe of Belgium, and presidents and government ministers representing more than a dozen nations were in attendance, as were most of the ambassadors to the Holy See.
Special guests, including the late pope’s closest collaborators and representatives of the Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant and U.S. evangelical communities. Jewish and Muslim organisations also sent delegations.
Pope Francis presided over the Mass and Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, dean of the College of Cardinals, was the main celebrant at the altar. More than 1,000 journalists, photographers and technicians covered the funeral in St. Peter’s Square.
Pope Francis spoke of Jesus’ grateful, prayerful and sustained devotion to God’s will and how Jesus’ final words on the cross, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” summed up his entire life.
“His were hands of forgiveness and compassion, healing and mercy, anointing and blessing, which led him also to entrust himself into the hands of his brothers and sisters,” he said.
“Father into your hands I commend my spirit,” the pope said, is the plan for life that Jesus quietly invites and inspires people to follow.
“Like the Master, a shepherd bears the burden of interceding and the strain of anointing his people, especially in situations where goodness must struggle to prevail and the dignity of our brothers and sisters is threatened,” the pope said.
Quoting his predecessor’s homily marking the start of his pontificate in April 2005, Pope Francis said: “Feeding means loving, and loving also means being ready to suffer. Loving means giving the sheep what is truly good, the nourishment of God’s truth, of God’s word, the nourishment of his presence,”
“Benedict, faithful friend of the Bridegroom, may your joy be complete as you hear his voice, now and forever!” he concluded.
Early on Thursday, the Vatican released the official history of Benedict’s life, a short document in Latin known as a “rogito” or deed which was placed in a metal cylinder in his coffin before it was sealed,
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 11th February 2013, when he announced he would retire.
The document 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”.
Fiona-Louise Devlin said she and her friend travelled to Rome from Scotland specifically for the funeral.
“He’s the pope of our generation. I’ve travelled around the world to go to celebrations that he’s been a part of, so I wanted to be here for this,” she said.
The crowd applauded as the pope’s cypress casket was brought into the square and placed before the altar.
The pope’s master of liturgical ceremonies, Msgr. Diego Giovanni Ravelli, and Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the late pope’s longtime personal secretary, together placed an opened Book of the Gospels on the casket. The simple casket was decorated with his coat of arms as archbishop of Munich and Freising, Germany, which depicts a shell, a Moor and a bear loaded with a pack on his back.
The Bible readings were in Spanish, English and Italian, and the prayers of the faithful at the Mass were recited in German, French, Arabic, Portuguese and Italian.
At the pope’s funeral, like any Catholic funeral, Communion was followed by the “final commendation and farewell.”
A bell tolled solemnly and the assembly applauded for several minutes -with some chanting “Benedetto”-as the pallbearers carried the casket toward St. Peter’s Basilica.
Picture: Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, dean of the College of Cardinals, blesses the casket of Pope Benedict XVI with incense as Pope Francis presides over his funeral Mass in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on 5th January 2023. (CNS photo/Chris Warde-Jones)