Pope Francis paid tribute to his predecessor, former Pope Benedict XVI, on Thursday at a funeral attended by tens of thousands of mourners in St. Peter’s Square.
The funeral marked the first occasion in modern times that a pontiff presided over the funeral of his predecessor. Benedict, the first pontiff in nearly 600 years to step down from his post, rather than hold office for life, died at the age of 95 on December 31 at a monastery in Vatican City.
It was an occasion characterized by simplicity, according to the wish of the former pope. “It’s hard to have simple service in St. Peter’s Square, but I think so,” Fr. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, writer and editor, told CNN’s Max Foster and Bianca Nobilo on CNN Newsroom.
“You have to have a bit of pomp and ceremony for a former pope, but I think within the guidelines of what Pope Emeritus Benedict wanted, it pulled it off very well.”
According to Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni, around 50,000 people attended the funeral in St. Peter’s Square, compared to around 1.1 million people for the funeral of Benedict XVI’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II. There were 500,000 people in and around St. Peter’s Square in 2005, and another 600,000 watching on video screens in other parts of Rome.
John Paul II’s funeral was the largest gathering of heads of state ever held outside the United Nations. Delegations included nine monarchs as well as 70 presidents and prime ministers.
In the six days between John Paul II’s death and his funeral, around 3 million people came to pay their last respects. Every hour, 21,000 people passed through St. Peter’s Basilica. The average wait to see the Pope was 1 p.m., and at its peak the line was 3 miles long.
Dignitaries and religious leaders lined the square, which seats around 60,000 people, for the ceremony on Thursday. Prime Minister Petr Fiala of the Czech Republic was among those present, according to CNN affiliate CNN Prima.
The ceremony was similar to that of a reigning pope but with some modifications. Benedict was named pope emeritus at the funeral, and the language of some prayers was different because he was not the reigning pope when he died.
Francis began leading Mass Thursday morning, during which he delivered a homily around 10 a.m. local time (4 a.m. ET). Members of the crowd then took part in a communion.
“The faithful people of God, gathered here, now accompany him and entrust to him the life of the one who was his pastor,” Francis said while delivering the homily.
“Like the women at the tomb, we too have come with the perfume of gratitude and the balm of hope, in order to show her once again the love that does not die. We want to do it with the same wisdom , the same tenderness and devotion he has 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 in hearing his voice, now and forever,” Francis added.
Benedict’s coffin was carried through the basilica and will be transferred to the Vatican crypt for burial, in the first tomb of John Paul II. The tomb was evacuated after the body of John Paul II and the remains were moved to a chapel inside the basilica after he became a saint.
As Benedict XVI’s coffin was carried to St. Peter’s Basilica, many members of the crowd could be heard chanting “Santo Subito,” which is a call for the pope emeritus to become a saint immediately.
During the burial during the rite, a band will be placed around the coffin with the seals of the apostolic chamber, of the pontifical household and of the liturgical celebrations. The cypress casket will be placed inside a welded and sealed zinc casket, then placed inside a wooden casket, which will be buried.
The ceremony is expected to end around 11:15 a.m. local time (5:15 a.m. ET).
High-level dignitaries, including Queen Sofia of Spain and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, are expected to attend the funeral, alongside US Ambassador to the Holy See Joe Donelly.
Benedict was elected pope in April 2005 after the death of John Paul II. He was known to be more conservative than his successor, Pope Francis, who took steps to soften the Vatican’s stance on abortion and homosexuality, as well as to do more to address the sexual abuse crisis that has engulfed the church in recent years and clouded Benedict’s legacy.
The parchment placed in the coffin of Pope Benedict XVI, which is a biography of his life and mentions some of the most important moments of his mandate, recalls that he “firmly” fought against pedophilia.
“He staunchly opposed crimes committed by clergy against minors or vulnerable people, continually calling the Church to conversion, prayer, penance and purification,” the scroll reads.
His death prompted tributes from political and religious leaders, including US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the Dalai Lama.
Around 200,000 mourners, including Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and President Sergio Mattarella, paid their respects to the former pontiff earlier this week during his lay-in at St. Peter’s Basilica.
Benedict XVI’s public display ended on Wednesday, before an intimate religious rite in which items including coins and medals minted during his tenure and a parchment on the pontificate were placed in his cypress coffin sealed before the funeral.
Francis paid tribute to his predecessor during an audience at the Vatican on Wednesday.
“I would like us to join those who, here with us, pay homage to Benedict XVI, and turn my thoughts to him, a great master of catechesis,” he said.
“May he help us to rediscover in Christ the joy of believing and the hope of living.