Pope Francis praised Benedict XVI’s efforts to “spread and testify” to the Gospel in the face of resistance as he presided at a historic funeral Mass for his predecessor, who shocked the world in 2013 by resigning from the papacy.
On 5 January 2023, Francis became the first Pope to preside at the funeral of a Pope Emeritus in a ceremony attended by an estimated 50,000 people who had gathered for the liturgy on a cold, foggy morning in St Peter’s Square.
The dome of the basilica was covered with mist as the first mourners entered the square, among them a Bavarian marching band from Pope Benedict’s homeland who noisily made their way into the piazza.
The atmosphere was not one of pomp and splendour but was marked by solemnity. The last papal funeral, which was for John Paul II in 2005, saw millions descend on Rome and one of the largest gatherings of heads of state outside the UN.
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The smaller numbers for Benedict reflected that this was the funeral of a Pope Emeritus rather than a serving one.
The funeral of a retired Pope is unchartered territory for the Vatican. Specially devised by a team of liturgists, it followed the basic structures of a papal funeral although certain prayers were omitted.
As is customary for dead Popes, Benedict XVI was buried in three coffins along with the coins and medals minted during his pontificate, his pallia (symbols of authority) and a summary document of the highlights of his life and pontificate.
The document, known as a “rogito”, highlighted Benedict's “profound theological and biblical knowledge”, his “dialogue with Anglicans, Jews and representatives of other religions”, and that he “fought firmly against crimes committed by clergy against minors or vulnerable persons, constantly calling the Church to conversion, prayer, penance and purification”.
He was dressed in the vestments that he wore for Mass at World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney.
Francis entered the basilica in a wheelchair before the funeral began at 9:30am, and was vested at the altar while 125 cardinals processed into the square.
Thousands of priests and hundreds of bishops also took part in the Mass.
The Pope’s homily was brief and, in keeping with liturgical norms, did not offer a eulogy or overview of Benedict’s life. He instead focussed his reflection on the Gospel, Luke’s account of Jesus’ death, which includes the line “Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit.”
The focus on the message of the Gospel at the funeral, rather than the personal achievements of Benedict XVI, is in keeping with the Pope Emeritus’ concern that the papacy does not become a cult of personality.
His resignation was a dramatic step towards demystifying the office.
Francis said that Benedict had “spread and testified” to the Gospel for his “entire life” but had done so in the face of “challenges and resistance”, a nod to some of the turbulence that occurred during his predecessor’s eight-year pontificate.
“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,” said Francis.
He concluded: “Benedict, faithful friend of the Bridegroom, may your joy be complete as you hear his voice, now and forever.”
A reigning Pope celebrating the funeral of his predecessor is not without precedent. In 1802, Pope Pius VII celebrated the funeral of Pius VI, who had died in exile in 1799 and was returned to Rome three years later.
Before Benedict, the last Pope to resign had been Gregory XII, who did so in 1415 to end a schism. The last Pope to resign voluntarily was Celestine V in 1294.
The January funeral Mass was celebrated in Latin, although the readings were in Italian and English. The bidding prayers were said in several languages, including Pope Benedict’s native German.
Benedict was referred to as the “Pope Emeritus” in the order of service. A prayer at the end said: “We now offer our final farewell to Pope Emeritus Benedict and commend him to God, our merciful and loving Father.”
This week an estimated 195,000 people paid their last respects to Benedict XVI as he lay in state in St Peter’s Basilica.
Visiting dignitaries, including the President of Italy, Sergio Mattarella, the President of Hungary, Victor Orban, and Queen Sofia of Spain were ushered into the basilica to pay their respects.
Pews were set up on either side of Benedict for cardinals, bishops, and religious sisters to spend longer in prayer in front of the body.
Only Italy and Germany were asked to send official delegations to the funeral by the Vatican, with other countries sending representatives in a “private capacity”.
Gillian Keegan, the education secretary and a Catholic, attended the funeral on behalf of the UK government, while Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the President of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, also attended and concelebrated the Mass.
The Irish Church was represented at the funeral by the Archbishop of Armagh, Eamon Martin, and the Archbishop of Dublin, Dermot Farrell.
As Benedict XVI's coffin was being carried out, Francis got up from his seat, bowed his head in prayer, and affectionately placed his hand on the casket.
After the funeral liturgy was completed, the Pope Emeritus was buried in the Vatican grottoes under the floor of St Peter's in a space vacated after John Paul II's remains were moved to the basilica's main floor due to his canonisation. The first coffin was made of cypress wood, which was placed into a zinc casket and then into an oak coffin.