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Pope Francis leads funeral of Benedict XVI as supporters seek sainthood

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  • About 50,000 mourners attend outdoor ceremony
  • Former pope was standard bearer for traditionalist Catholics
  • Pope Benedict XVI buried under St. Peter’s Basilica

VATICAN CITY, Jan 5 (Reuters) – Pope Francis conducted the funeral of former Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday, lovingly touching his predecessor’s coffin as he leaned on a cane in front of tens of thousands of mourners, some asking that the late pontiff be made a saint.

Benedict’s death on Saturday ended a decade in which the former and current pope had lived side by side in the Vatican and was the first time in more than 200 years that a pontiff had presided over his predecessor’s service.

His death was a loss for conservatives who yearned for 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 for life.

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, albeit by many more people at the time.

Three of the last five popes have been made saints, 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 been leveled, including by victims of clergy sexual abuse, who accused him of trying to protect the Church at all costs.

Francis, who had been seated for most of the service because of a knee ailment, rose at the end as Benedict’s coffin was being carried away for a private burial inside St Peter’s Basilica. Bowing his head in silent prayer, Francis touched the coffin briefly.

At 86, Francis, who uses a wheelchair but shows no signs of slowing down, with trips planned to Africa and Portugal in the coming months, is a year older now than Benedict XVI was when he retired.

Francis himself has made it clear that he would not hesitate to step down someday if his mental or physical health prevented him from carrying out his duties, but Vatican officials have always doubted that he could do so while Benedict was still alive.


An account of Benedict XVI’s papacy, along with other items, including Vatican coins minted during his reign, were placed in his coffin. The account, written in Latin, says Benedict “fought steadfastly” against sexual abuse by clergy in the Church.

Although Benedict XVI avoided public appearances after his resignation, he remained a standard-bearer for conservative Catholics who felt alienated by reforms introduced by Francis, including a 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 soldered it shut, Vatican photos showed. Both 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, arrived at dawn to say goodbye. Italian police said around 50,000 people were in the square, including some heads of state and European royalty.

“It’s a sad but meaningful day. I wanted to be here so much I can 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 I should come and attend Holy Mass to accompany you in prayer.”

Xavier Mora, 24, a Spaniard preparing for the priesthood, said he had studied the theology of Benedict XVI and had “great affection and esteem for him”.

About 200,000 people passed by Benedict’s body while he was in the state for three days through Wednesday night.


The service began when, to the sound of bells, 12 bearers carried the coffin containing Benedict’s remains out of the basilica and placed it on the ground in front of the largest church in Christendom. Bells also tolled in German cities.

The last time a reigning pope presided over the funeral of a predecessor was in 1802, when Pius VII presided over the service for Pius VI, whose body was returned to the Vatican after he died in 1799 in exile.

In his homily read from his seat before the altar, Francis used more than a dozen biblical references and Church writings in which he appeared to be comparing Benedict XVI to Jesus, including his last words before dying on the cross: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit .”

During the mass concelebrated by 125 cardinals, 200 bishops and some 3,700 priests, Francis spoke of the “wisdom, tenderness and devotion that he has bestowed upon us over the years”.

He mentioned Benedict by name only once, in the last line, saying: “Benedict, faithful friend of the Bridegroom, (Jesus) may your joy be complete in hearing your voice, now and forever!”

More than 1,000 Italian security guards were called in to help protect the event, and the airspace around the tiny Holy See was closed for the day. Italy ordered flags across the country to be flown at half-mast.

At his own request, Benedict was interred in the Vatican’s underground grottoes in the niche where first Pope John XXIII and later John Paul II were buried before their remains were moved to more prominent places in the basilica above.

Written by Philip Pullella and Crispian Balmer; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Muralikumar Anantharaman and Alison Williams

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