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Pope Francis honors Benedict XVI during funeral

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VATICAN CITY — For the first time in its modern history, the Catholic Church buried a retired pontiff, following a solemn and relaxed ceremony on Thursday that included a final, indelible gesture: Pope Francis bowing his head and placing his hand on the coffin of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI before he was taken.

The requiem mass, held as a heavy fog lifted, used a mix of ancient rituals and new precedents to pay homage to a figure who transformed the papacy with his decision to abdicate 10 years ago.

The ceremony lacked the noise, color, pain and even bursts of joy that marked the last papal funeral, John Paul II’s, in 2005. Benedict’s drew 50,000 people – a sixth of that crowd. It took 90 minutes, half the time. It showed the profound difference between what it means to die as a beloved acting pope and as a retired and controversial pope.

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But the funeral was captivating for the juxtaposition of two men, Benedict and Francis, one being honored and the other present to pay homage, one who died Saturday aged 95 and the other who, at 86, is already one of the oldest popes in that there is registration. . On Thursday, the men who had lived side by side for 10 years were again just 15 feet apart, with Francis – pushed down the aisle in a wheelchair – sitting in front of a cypress coffin holding his predecessor.

“We now offer our last farewell to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and we commend him to God,” Francis said.

The funeral gave the church a final moment to reflect on one of its most imposing and polarizing conservatives – someone who shaped the faith with his moral certainty. As pontiff, he prayed at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, celebrated Mass at Yankee Stadium, named 84 cardinals and made 24 trips abroad. But he built his reputation above all else by doggedly protecting the Church’s core teachings, even when they were unpopular with practicing Catholics, a method Francis has been keen to tone down.

Catholic faithful pay homage to Pope Benedict XVI in St Peter’s Basilica

It was only because of Benedict’s historic abdication that Francis was given the chance to preside over his predecessor’s ceremony. Francis delivered a homily rich in verse, without personal touches, making no nominal reference to his predecessor until the very last sentence, when he said: “Benedict… may your joy be complete in hearing his voice.”

Francis’ approach marked a notable departure from the homily at the last papal funeral, delivered by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger 10 days before he was elected Benedict XVI. Afterwards, Ratzinger wove verses and biographies, describing John Paul II’s adolescence working in a chemical factory, his discoveries as a young priest and his reign as pontiff, when “he tried to get to know everybody.” When Ratzinger finished, the crowd in St. Peter’s Square roared, some chanting: “Holy! Holy!”

Thursday, when Francis finished, there was silence.

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George Weigel, a papal biographer, observed that homilies at Catholic funerals do not normally read like funeral eulogies, but should be forward-looking – to the “expectation of eternal life”. Throughout his pontificate, Francis has routinely placed the Gospel at the center of his homilies, including for canonizations.

Still, there were criticisms from some traditionalist quarters. Rod Dreher, an American commentator who converted to Orthodoxy but shares ideological ground with Catholic traditionalists, called the homily “mean and petty.” It fell short of what the moment demanded, said Dreher, who attended the funeral.

Others said Francis paid homage to a predecessor who preferred attention to the church rather than himself.

“It’s totally in Benedict’s spirit, and it’s only right that his wishes be respected,” Cardinal Wim Eijk, a conservative who held Benedict in high regard, said in an interview with The Washington Post after the funeral.

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Although the Vatican predicted that Benedict’s funeral would be “simple”, he received many of the passes granted to other pontiffs: for three days this week, he remained in the state for open house. Certain mementos of his pontificate, as well as a written text describing his life, reign and resignation, were placed in his coffin. On the Thursday after the funeral, he was given a final ritualistic burial reserved for popes, with his coffin wrapped in zinc and then placed in an outer oak casket.

But since Benedict was not an acting pope, there will be no immediate conclave or intrigue. The church will waive the usual nine-day period of mourning. In passages during the funeral, Benedict was referred to as “pope emeritus”. There was an additional prayer for “Our Holy Father, Pope Francis”.

The crowd included several thousand clergy, more than 120 cardinals, European heads of state and pilgrims from all corners of the world. Some waved flags from Bavaria, the part of Germany where Benedict was born, baptized and ordained. Some attendees said they were personally touched by Benedict’s teachings or shared his vision for the church.

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“We are here for Benedict,” said Tomasz Kotwicki, 58, a doctor from Poland. He said Francis, during the ceremony, looked “very tired”.

“Just like Benedict XVI did in 2013” ​​before he resigned, he said.

That abdication and the subsequent election of Francis led to a decade-long coexistence, alternately warm and uneasy. Francis compared Benedict’s presence to having “a wise grandfather at home,” and Benedict made it clear that the church had only one authority – Francis. But because of profound differences in their approaches, they were sometimes seen as commanding different poles of the church.

In 2021, Francis revoked a liturgical decision signed by Benedict XVI imposing restrictions on the old Latin Mass, a rite favored by some traditionalists. In an interview published this week by a German outlet, Benedict XVI’s personal secretary and longtime confidant, Georg Gänswein, called this decision a “cut” against the pope emeritus that created “pain in his heart”.

These Americans are devotees of the ancient Latin Mass. They are also at odds with Pope Francis.

Church historian Alberto Melloni said that after Benedict’s funeral, “Francis’ pontificate begins anew.” But it’s not clear whether it gets harder or easier. Benedict, at times, broke his promise of silence and contradicted Francis, creating headaches for the church. But some church observers saw Benedict, who was generally deferential, as a way to keep conservative dissent from boiling over.

With several comments over the years, Francis has indicated he is open to following Benedict’s resignation and eventually retiring should his health take a turn for the worse. That doesn’t seem imminent; he keeps a fast schedule. Speculation about his future has risen from time to time – particularly after a sore knee last year limited his mobility – but among Vatican watchers, it has long been assumed that he would not step down with Benedict still alive, to avoid a scenario with two ex-popes. Now, for the first time in his pontificate, there are no former popes.

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“Your hands are not so tied anymore,” Melloni said. “He will finally be able to choose what to do with his future.”

The main thing that could prevent a resignation would be an escalation of dissent so strong that it casts doubt on whether the decision was freely made.

On Thursday, after Francis placed his hand on Benedict’s coffin, 12 pallbearers took it back to St. Peter’s Basilica, where it was soon closed in its two additional layers and buried in the caves. Benedict XVI’s remains were placed in the same place that once housed John Paul II, before his body was exhumed in 2011 and transported to the top floor of the basilica.

The Vatican released the text of the document that was buried with Benedict in a protective cylinder. The text represents the church’s narrative of the 265th pope, describing his “broad and deep” biblical and theological knowledge and his promotion of dialogue with other religions. And it depicts the startling morning of 2013 when Benedict XVI declared in Latin that he no longer had “mental or physical strength” for the job.

The document says of Benedict: “His memory remains in the heart of the Church and of all humanity.”

Photo highlights from the funeral of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI