Pope Francis praises ‘gentle’ Pope Benedict XVI ahead of funeral

Associated Press | 1/5/2023, 6 p.m.
Pope Francis praised Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s “acute and gentle thought” as he presided over a packed Wednesday general audience ...
Pope Benedict XVI

VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis praised Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s “acute and gentle thought” as he presided over a packed Wednesday general audience in the Vatican, while thousands of people paid tribute to the former pope on the final day of public viewing in St. Peter’s Basilica. Francis was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd in the Paul VI auditorium and shouts of “Viva il papa!” or “Long live the pope” as he arrived for his weekly catechism appointment with the faithful.

This week’s audience was conducted while tens of thousands of people continued to flock to the Vatican to pay their respects to Pope Benedict XVI before the official viewing of his body ends Wednesday evening. From Monday through midday Wednesday, nearly 160,000 people had passed through the basilica, the Vatican said.

“It is my duty to come,” said Małgorzata Nowska, a Polish resident of Rome as she paid tribute Wednesday. She said she wanted to give Pope Benedict XVI “a last hug, a last prayer.”

Pope Francis is due to preside over the late German pope’s funeral on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023, an event that is drawing heads of state and royalty despite Pope Benedict XVI’s requests for simplicity and Vatican efforts to keep the first Vatican funeral for an emeritus pope in modern times low-key. Only Italy and Germany were invited to send official delegations, and Ger-man President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Italian President Sergio Mattarella confirmed their participation.

But other heads of state and government decided to take the Vatican up on its offer and come in their “private capacity.” As of a late count Wednesday, seven heads of state, four prime ministers and two delegations of royal representatives were attending as private citizens, including the president of Togo, the prime minister of Gabon and royals from Belgium and Spain.

And in a further sign of officialdom, the Italian government announced it was lowering all Italian and European Union flags to half-staff on public buildings across the country Thursday.

Pope Francis drew applause when he opened his remarks by giving a shout-out to all those who were outside paying tribute to Pope Benedict XVI, whom he called a “great master of catechesis.”

“His acute and gentle thought was not self-referential, but ecclesial, because he always wanted to accompany us in the encounter with Jesus,” Pope Francis said.

Later Wednesday, Vatican officials were to place Pope Benedict XVI’s body in a cypress coffin — the first of three coffins —along with a brief, written summary of his historic papacy, the coins minted during his pontificate and his pallium stoles.

After the funeral in the piazza, the remains will be carried back into the basilica, where the coffin will be placed inside a zinc one, and then finally into another made from oak.

In keeping with Pope Benedict XVI’s wishes, his remains will be placed in the crypt once occupied by the tomb of St. John Paul II in the grottos underneath the basilica. Pope John Paul’s tomb was moved upstairs into the main basilica ahead of his 2011 beatification.

Pope Benedict XVI, who was elected pope in 2005 following John Paul’s death, became the first pope in six centuries years to resign when he announced in 2013 that he no longer had the strength to lead the Catholic Church. After Pope Francis was elected pope, Pope Benedict XVI spent his nearly decade-long retirement in a converted monastery in the Vatican Gardens.