Pope Francis praised Benedict XVI’s “wisdom, tenderness, and devotion” Thursday as he celebrated the funeral Mass of the renowned theologian who in 2013 became the first pope to resign in almost 600 years.
Tens of thousands of mourners gathered in St. Peter’s Square on the cool and misty morning of Jan. 5 to say farewell to the retired German pope who steered the Church for eight turbulent years after the long papacy of John Paul II.
Pope Francis arrived in St. Peter’s Square in a wheelchair for the first funeral of a pope since 2005, when the future Benedict XVI presided at the funeral Mass of John Paul II. The 86-year-old pope was assisted to the altar, where he sat in red vestments.
Toward the end of Benedict XVI’s funeral Mass, there were cries of “santo subito,” a phrase made famous during the Polish pope’s funeral, when mourners appealed for his swift recognition as a saint.
From Monday to Wednesday, almost 200,000 people stood in line to pay their last respects to Benedict XVI, who died on Dec. 31 at the age of 95. He lay in state in St. Peter’s Basilica, dressed in the chasuble he wore at World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia, in 2008, one of the happiest moments of his pontificate.
Ahead of the Mass, Benedict XVI’s body was placed in a plain cypress wood coffin marked with his coat of arms. The casket was carried by white-gloved pallbearers from St. Peter’s Basilica to St. Peter’s Square.
Mourners applauded as the coffin was placed beneath the steps leading to the altar. The Book of the Gospels lay open on top of the casket throughout the funeral Mass, which did not feature the gusting winds that marked John Paul II’s funeral.
Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Benedict XVI’s longtime personal secretary, knelt before the coffin and kissed it.
The funeral Mass was concelebrated by 125 cardinals, 200 bishops, and an estimated 3,700 priests.
Among the cardinals in St. Peter’s Square was Cardinal Joseph Zen, who was permitted to leave Hong Kong for the funeral by a local court following his conviction in November in connection with his role as a trustee of an organization aiding pro-democracy protesters.
Dignitaries present included Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, as well as Poland’s President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
U.S. President Joe Biden indicated that he would not attend the funeral because of the disruption associated with his large entourage. The U.S. was represented by its ambassador to the Holy See, Joe Donnelly.
Royal mourners included King Philippe and Queen Mathilde of Belgium, and also the former Queen Sofía of Spain.
The funeral Mass was celebrated largely in Latin, but there were readings in Spanish, English, and Italian, and prayers in German, French, Arabic, and Portuguese.
The first reading, Isaiah 29:16-19, looked ahead to the days “when the blind will see.”
The responsorial psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want,” was sung in Latin.
The second reading, 1 Peter 1:3-9, was an offering of thanks to God the Father, “who in his great mercy has given us a new birth as his sons, by raising Jesus Christ from the dead.”
The Gospel, Luke 23:39-46, recounted Jesus’ promise to one of the criminals crucified beside him on Calvary that “today you will be with me in paradise.” The reading ended with Christ’s dying words: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
Pope Francis remained seated to read his homily, which focused on the Gospel reading and the qualities of a good pastor.
He described Jesus’ final words before his death on the Cross as “the invitation and the program of life that he quietly inspires in us.”
“Like a potter, he wishes to shape the heart of every pastor, until it is attuned to the heart of Christ Jesus,” he said.
He went on: “Attuned in prayerful devotion, a devotion silently shaped and refined amid the challenges and resistance that every pastor must face in trusting obedience to the Lord’s command to feed his flock. 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.”
“In the course of this intercession, the Lord quietly bestows the spirit of meekness that is ready to understand, accept, hope and risk, notwithstanding any misunderstandings that might result. It is the source of an unseen and elusive fruitfulness, born of his knowing the One in whom he has placed his trust. A trust itself born of prayer and adoration, capable of discerning what is expected of a pastor and shaping his heart and his decisions in accord with God’s good time.”
Turning to the pope emeritus, he said: “Holding fast to the Lord’s last words and to the witness of his entire life, we too, as an ecclesial community, want to follow in his steps and to commend our brother into the hands of the Father. May those merciful hands find his lamp alight with the oil of the Gospel that he spread and testified to for his entire life.”
He continued: “God’s faithful people, gathered here, now accompanies and entrusts to him the life of the one who was their pastor. 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. We want to do this with the same wisdom, tenderness, and devotion that he bestowed upon 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 as you hear his voice, now and forever!”
After his homily, there was a moment of silence in which the only sounds were those of the rumbling Roman traffic.
Following his custom in recent months, as he has struggled with knee pain, Pope Francis remained seated during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The Italian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, Dean of the College of Cardinals, stood in his place at the altar, reciting the prayers.
Great ranks of priests extended their arms as Cardinal Re pronounced the Words of the Institution, used by Jesus at the Last Supper.
For the first time since its introduction in 1970, Eucharistic Prayer III was used at a papal funeral, rather than the Roman Canon, which dates back to at least the 7th century.
The innovation sparked debate among Catholics, with some arguing that the pope emeritus would have wanted the ancient Eucharist Prayer and others that he preferred the newer option.
Eucharistic Prayer III was likely to have been chosen as it has a special formula that can be inserted when used at Masses for the Dead.
The Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, the former head of the Vatican’s liturgical department, read out the additional prayer at the end of Eucharistic Prayer III, which was offered entirely in Latin.
He said: “Remember your servant Pope emeritus Benedict, whom you have called from this world to yourself. Grant that he who was united with your Son in a death like his, may also be one with him in his Resurrection, when from the earth he will raise up in the flesh those who have died, and transform our lowly body after the pattern of his own glorious body.”
“To our departed brothers and sisters, too, and to all who were pleasing to you at their passing from this life, give kind admittance to your kingdom. There we hope to enjoy forever the fullness of your glory, when you will wipe away every tear from our eyes.”
“For seeing you, our God, as you are, we shall be like you for all the ages and praise you without end, through Christ our Lord, through whom you bestow on the world all that is good.”
Following Communion, the liturgy’s final commendation and farewell took place.
The celebrant prayed: “May the God of our fathers, through Jesus Christ, his only Son, in the Holy Spirit, Lord and Giver of Life, deliver Pope Emeritus Benedict from death, that he may sing God’s praises in the heavenly Jerusalem in expectation of the resurrection of his mortal body on the last day.”
“May the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of the Apostles and Salus Populi Romani, intercede before the Eternal Father, that he may reveal the face of Jesus his Son to Pope Emeritus Benedict and console the Church on her pilgrimage through history as she awaits the Lord’s return.”
Cardinal Re then walked around Benedict XVI’s coffin, wafting it with plumes of incense.
As the pallbearers lifted Benedict’s coffin to take it to its final resting place, mourners broke into applause and there were cries of “santo subito!”
At Benedict XVI’s request, he will be buried in a tomb in the Vatican Grottoes below St. Peter’s Basilica where John XXIII and John Paul II were laid to rest before they were moved up into the basilica following their beatifications. An account of his papacy, along with Vatican coins minted during his pontificate, was sealed in the German pope’s coffin.