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Pope Benedict XVI’s funeral led by his successor Pope Francis in a first for the Catholic Church

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was being laid to rest Thursday in Vatican City in the first funeral ever conducted by a sitting pope for his predecessor. Pope Francis, who has led the Catholic Church since his election in 2013, following Benedict’s surprise resignation, was leading the funeral ceremony. 

The historic funeral capped a chapter of Catholic Church history marked notably by Benedict’s decision to step down — the first pontiff to do so in modern times.

Up to 100,000 people were expected to crowd into St. Peter’s Square for the Funeral Mass, which was being conducting in a manner similar to that which would be held for a sitting pope.

Vatican Benedict XVI Funeral
Pope Francis sits by the coffin of the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in St. Peter’s Square during a funeral mass at the Vatican, January 5, 2023.

Andrew Medichini/AP

The body of Pope Emeritus Benedict was carried before crowds in a traditional cypress wood coffin early on Thursday morning and placed before the ancient St. Peter’s Basilica. It was a solemn occasion, as well as a historic one.

Among the tens of thousands gathered in the shadow of St. Peter’s were more than 100 cardinals, 400 bishops, and almost 4,000 priests from all over the world.

“He was a great pope,” said Father Calistus Kahale Kabindama, a priest who came all the way from Zambia to pay his respects. “He was a marvelous pope.”

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The late pontiff had requested a simple funeral. He died last week at the age of 95. Benedict lived in a monastery at the Vatican after his surprise resignation nearly 10 years ago. He still wore white robes, and spent most of his time reading and writing theology.

Nothing may have defined Benedict XVI’s tenure as the leader of the world’s Catholics so clearly as its ending — marked by his majestic farewell flight over the Eternal City in a helicopter — after he became the first pope in more than 700 years to voluntarily resign.

Benedict said at the time that his mental and physical strength had deteriorated “to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”

A naturally shy man, Benedict always said he had no ambitions to lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. But he was chosen in 2005 to succeed Pope John Paul II. At 78, he took on the role as the oldest pope in nearly 30 years.

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He entered the priesthood after World War II and rose to become a cardinal. In the powerful position as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he earned the nickname “God’s Rottweiler,” as a rigid enforcer of church policy. It was a characterisation his biographer John Allen said Ratzinger worked hard to change.

“He was seen as harsh, as authoritarian, as controlling… and it was important to him, right out of the gate, to revise that… public image, and I think by and large he did so quite successfully,” said Allen.

He did it by being what he naturally was: a teacher, and one who spoke clearly and without undue theological jargon.

Only Italy and Benedict’s native Germany sent official delegations for the mass on Thursday, though royalty from Belgium and Spain, along with more than a dozen heads of state and ambassadors to the Holy See from many nations also came to honor the former pope.

After the funeral, Benedict’s cypress coffin was to be placed inside a zinc coffin, and then into a larger wooden coffin before a private burial in the grottoes below St. Peter’s Basilica.

The U.S. conference of Catholic Bishops has called for a Novena, or nine days of prayer, in memory of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, starting on Thursday.

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