Pope Francis has given permission for a homeless man to be buried inside the Vatican for the first time.
Willy Herteleer has been laid to rest in the shadow of St Peter’s Basilica among diplomats, artists, clerics and benefactors of the Church in the walled Teutonic Cemetery, the only cemetery within Vatican City.
Mr Herteleer, who was thought to have been Belgian and around 80 years old, was well known around St Peter’s Square having attended Mass daily and begged from passers-by for years. He was found barely conscious in January and taken to hospital, where he died a short while later. He was left unidentified in a hospital morgue.
Mgr Amerigo Ciani, a canon at St Peter's Basilica who had befriended Mr Herteleer during Masses, told the Pope: “Holy Father, we don’t know where to bury him.” “Give him a dignified burial in the Vatican,” Francis replied, according to the Italian daily Il Messagero.
“He was a clean and honest man. He lived on the margins, going unnoticed by our egotistical society,” said Mgr Ciani, who also gave him a funeral Mass at St Anne’s which the paper described as “fit for a king … [with] plumes of incense and garlands of fresh flowers”. Fr Bruno Silvestrini, the priest of the Vatican's St Anne’s church, told Vatican Radio: "He attended 7 o'clock Mass every day for more than 25 years."
Though Herteleer lived on the streets with all of his belongings packed in a shopping trolley, "he was a rich person of great faith," the priest said.
"He was very, very open and had made many friends," he went on. "He spoke a lot with young people, he spoke to them of the Lord, he spoke about the pope, he would invite them to the celebration of the Eucharist," which Mr Herteleer said was "his medicine".
Mr Herteleer was well known by the Swiss Guards keeping watch at St Anne's Gate, and by local business owners and a number of clergy who brought him food, took him to lunch or treated him to his morning cappuccino, according to news reports.