Faithful mourn Benedict XVI at funeral presided over by the Pope

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VATICAN CITY (AP) – Pope Francis joins tens of thousands of faithful in Benedict XVI’s farewell at a rare requiem mass on Thursday for a dead pope presided over by a living one, ending an unprecedented decade for the Catholic Church that was triggered by the German theologian’s decision to retire.

Bells tolled and the crowd cheered as pallbearers emerged from a haze shrouded in St. Peter’s Basilica and placed Benedict’s simple cypress coffin before the altar in the square outside. Wearing the red vestments typical of papal funerals, Francis opened the service with a prayer and closed it by solemnly blessing the coffin and bowing his head.

In between, Francis made only a fleeting reference to Benedict in his homily, offering a meditation on Christ rather than a eulogy of his predecessor’s legacy before the coffin was sealed and entombed in the basilica’s grotto.

Heads of state and royalty, clergy from around the world and thousands of ordinary people attended the ceremony.despite Benedict’s call for simplicity and official efforts to keep the first funeral of a pope emeritus in modern times low-key.

Many mourners came from Bavaria, Benedict XVI’s homeland, and dressed in traditional dress, including boiled wool coats to ward off the morning chill.

“We came to honor Benedict and wanted to be here today to say goodbye,” said Raymond Mainar, who traveled from a small village east of Munich for the funeral. “He was a very good pope.”

Ignoring the decorum exhortations at the end, some in the crowd held banners or chanted “Santo Subito!” — “Holiness Now!” – echoing the spontaneous chants that erupted during the funeral of Saint John Paul II in 2005.

The former Joseph Ratzinger, who died Dec. 31 at age 95, is considered one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century and spent his life defending church doctrine. But he will go down in history for a singular and revolutionary act that changed the future of the papacy: he retiredthe first pope in six centuries to do so.

Francis praised Benedict XVI’s courage in stepping aside, saying it “opened the door” for other popes to do the same.. But few, including Benedict himself, expected his 10-year retirement to last longer than his eight-year papacy, and the two popes’ prolonged cohabitation in the Vatican Gardens has prompted calls for protocols to guide future resignations.

About 50,000 people attended Thursday’s mass, according to the Vatican, after about 200,000 paid their respects during three days of public viewing.

Only Italy and Germany were invited to send official delegations, but other leaders accepted the Vatican’s offer and came in “private capacity”. They included several heads of state and government, delegations of royal representatives, a host of patriarchs and 125 cardinals.

Among those present was Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen, who received special permission from the court to attend the funeral. Zen was detained in May on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces under China’s national security law after he clashed with authorities over his membership in a now-silenced democracy movement. His passport was revoked when he was arrested.

Benedict’s close confidants were also in attendance, most notably the former pope’s longtime secretary, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein. He bent down and kissed a book of Gospels that was left open in the coffin before the ceremony began.

After it was finished, the coffin was taken to the basilica grotto, placed first in a zinc coffin, sealed and then placed in an oak one.

A hymn from the choir echoed through the crypt as the coffin was lowered into the ground, bearing Benedict’s papal coat of arms, a cross, and a plaque recording in Latin what contained his body: “Corpus Benedicti XVI PM,” for “pontifex maximus” or ” Supreme Pontiff”.

Matteo Colonna, a 20-year-old seminarian from Teramo, Italy, said he came to Rome in part because of the historic nature of the funeral — but also because it had a personal resonance for him.

“The first spark of my vocation started under Benedict’s pontificate, but then became even stronger under Pope Francis,” said Colonna, as he sat praying in St. Peter’s Square at dawn. “I see a continuity between these two popes and the fact that today Francis is celebrating the funeral in memory of Benedict XVI is a historic event.”

But the service was also significant for what it lacked: the sense of uncertainty that would normally accompany the passing of a pope before a new one is elected.

“Benedict has been the bridge between John Paul and Francis,” said Alessandra Aprea, 56, from Meta di Sorrento, near Naples. “We couldn’t have Francisco without him.”

Earlier on Thursday, the Vatican released the official life story of Benedict, a short Latin document that was placed in a metal cylinder in his coffin before being sealed, along with coins and medallions minted during his papacy and their pall stoles.

The document gave extensive attention to the historic resignation of Benedict XVI and referred to him as “pope emeritus”, quoting verbatim the Latin words he uttered on February 11, 2013, when he announced that he would retire.

The document, known as a “rogito” or action, also cited his theological and papal legacy, including his contact with Anglicans and Jews and his efforts to combat clergy sexual abuse by “continually calling the church to conversion, prayer, penance and purification.” .

Francis did not mention Benedict’s legacy in his homily and only spoke his name once, in the last line, meditating on Jesus’ willingness to surrender to God’s will.

“Clinging to the last words of the Lord and the testimony of his whole life, we too, as an ecclesial community, want to follow in his footsteps and entrust our brother into the hands of the Father”, Francis said.

During Saint John Paul II’s quarter-century as pope, Ratzinger led a crackdown on dissent as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, acting against the left-leaning liberation theology that spread in Latin America in the 1970s and against to dissent theologians and nuns who have not taken the Vatican’s hard line on issues such as sexual morality.

His legacy was marred by the clergy sexual abuse crisis, although he recognized earlier than most the “filth” of priests who raped children and actually laid the groundwork for the Holy See to punish them.

As both cardinal and pope, he passed sweeping church legislation that resulted in the dismissal of 848 priests from 2004 to 2014, roughly his one-year pontificate. But abuse survivors still held him accountable for failing to punish any bishop who moved abusers, refusing to report sex crimes to the police, and identifying him as personifying the clerical system. which for a long time protected the institution over the victims.

Mike McDonnell, of the US abuse survivors’ group SNAP, said that while Benedict XVI passed new canon law, he could have done much more to influence John Paul to take firm action. Referring to Benedict’s nickname as “God’s Rottweiler”, he said: “In our opinion, it was a dog bark without a bite. Surely he could have done more.”

A group representing survivors of German clergy abuse called on German officials who attended Benedict XVI’s funeral to demand more action from the Vatican on sexual abuse. Eckiger Tisch urged leaders to demand that Francis issue a “universal church law” stipulating zero tolerance in dealing with clergy abuse.

The funerary ritual itself is modeled on the code used for dead popes, but with some modifications, as Benedict was not a reigning pontiff when he died.

While the Thursday Mass is unusual, it does have some precedent: In 1802, Pope Pius VII presided over the funeral in St. Peter’s of his predecessor, Pius VI, who died in exile in France in 1799 as a prisoner of Napoleon.

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Associated Press journalist Trisha Thomas contributed.

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Follow AP’s coverage of Pope Benedict XVI at https://apnews.com/hub/pope-benedict-xvi

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