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Pope Francis pays homage to Benedict XVI at funeral

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

The Requiem Mass, conducted like a thick mist lifted, used a mix of old rituals and new precedents to pay homage to a figure who transformed the papacy with his decision 10 years ago to abdicate.

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

Live updates from the funeral of Pope Benedict XVI

But the burial was captivating for the juxtaposition of two men, Benoît and François, one honored and the other to honor, the one who died Saturday at age 95 and the other who, at 86, is already one of the oldest pops ever recorded. Thursday, the men who had been live side by side for 10 years were again just 15 feet apart, with Francis – pushed down the aisle in a wheelchair – seated in front of a cypress coffin holding his predecessor.

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

The funeral gave the church a final moment to reflect on one of its most towering and polarizing preservers – someone who shaped the faith with his moral certainty. As pontiff, he prayed at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, celebrated mass at Yankee Stadium, appointed 84 cardinals and made 24 trips abroad. But he mostly built his reputation by stubbornly protecting the fundamental teachings of the Church, even when they were unpopular among practicing Catholics, a method which Francis worked to soften.

Catholic worshipers pay homage to Pope Benedict XVI at St. Peter’s Church. Saint Peter’s basilica

It was only because of Benedict’s historic abdication that Francis had the chance to preside over the ceremony for his predecessor. Francis delivered a verse-soaked homily, without the personal touches, making no reference to his predecessor by name until the last sentence, when he said, “Benedict…may your joy be complete 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 his election as Benedict. Then, Ratzinger had woven verses and a biography, 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 meet everyone”. When Ratzinger finished, the crowd in St. Peter’s Square roared, some chanting, “Holy!” Holy!”

Thursday, when François finished, there was silence.

The funeral of Benedict XVI to close the era of the “two popes”

George Weigel, a papal biographer, noted that homilies at Catholic funerals generally do not resemble eulogies, but should rather be forward-looking—to “the expectation of eternal life.” Throughout his pontificate, Francis regularly put the Gospel at the center of his homilies, including for canonizations.

Still, there were criticisms from some traditionalist circles. Rod Dreher, an American commentator who converted to Orthodoxy but shares ideological ground with Catholic traditionalists, calling the homily “mean and ungenerous”. It was short of what the time demanded, said Dreher, who attended the funeral.

Others said that Francis rightly paid homage to a predecessor who preferred attention to be directed to the church and not to himself.

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

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Although the Vatican had planned Benedict’s funeral to be “simple”, it received many passages granted to other pontiffs: for three days this week, he to state for the public visit. Some tokens of his pontificate, as well as a written text describing his life and reign and his resignation, were enclosed in his coffin. Thursday after the funeral, he received a final ritual burial reserved for popes, with his coffin encased in zinc and then enclosed in an outdoor oak coffin.

But because Benedict was not a sitting pope, there will be no immediate conclave or intrigue. The church will waive its usual nine-day mourning period. 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 clerics, more than 120 cardinals, European heads of state and pilgrims from around 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 Polish doctor. He said Francis, at the ceremony, looked “very tired”.

“Just like Benoît did in 2013” before quitting, he said.

This abdication, and the subsequent election of Francis, led to a ten-year coexistence, becoming warm and uneasy. Francis liked Benedict’s presence for having “a wise grandfather in the house”, 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 an emblematic liturgical decision of Benedict XVI by impose restrictions on the old mass in Latina rite favored by some traditionalists. In an interview published this week by German media, Benedict XVI’s personal secretary and longtime confidant Georg Gänswein called the move a “cut” against the pope emeritus that created “pain in his heart.”

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Church historian Alberto Melloni said that after Benedict’s funeral, “Francis’ pontificate begins again.” But whether it gets harder or easier is unclear. Benoit, in a few moments, broke his promise of silence and contradicts Francis, creating headaches for the church. But some church watchers saw Benedict, who was generally deferential, as preventing conservative dissent from reaching a boiling point.

With various comments over the years, Francis indicated that he was prepared to follow Benoît’s resignation by possibly retiring, in case his health deteriorated. It doesn’t seem imminent; he keeps a busy schedule. Speculation about his future has increased from time to time – especially after knee pain last year limited his mobility – but among Vatican watchers it has long been assumed that he would not resign with Benedict still alive, in order to avoid a scenario with two ex-popes. Now, for the first time in his pontificate, there is no ex-pope.

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“His hands are no longer tied,” Melloni said. “He will be allowed to finally choose what to do with his future.”

The main thing that could stand in the way of a resignation would be an escalation of dissent so fierce that it calls into question whether the decision was made freely.

On Thursday, after Francis laid his hand on Benedict’s coffin, 12 pallbearers carried it back to St. Petersburg. St. Peter’s Basilica, where shortly thereafter she was locked in her two further 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 upper floor of the basilica.

The Vatican released the document text who 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 he paints a picture of the amazing morning in 2013 when Benedict declared in Latin that he no longer had “strength of mind or body” for work.

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

Photos of highlights from the funeral of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

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