Pope Benedict XVI: The faithful pay their respects as they view the Vatican


VATICAN CITY — His body was carried into St. Peter’s Basilica just after dawn Monday, placed in red robes and black priestly shoes. A crimson pillow supported his back, two other pillows were under his head. A cardinal spread incense around the body and then – before the basilica’s doors opened to the public – workers removed the hearse so that the body of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI stood apart.

Thus began a new week in which a retired pope – secluded for a decade until his death on Saturday—became the center of the Catholic world for the last time.

For all who came to pay their respects, it was positioned directly in front of the high altar, under the towering golden dome. Two Swiss Guards stood on post. In the first hours of public viewing – out of a total of 34 leading up to his funeral on Thursday – there were nuns holding rosaries, people shaking hands and pilgrims who had traveled hours to be there.

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“A giant of the faith,” said Andrea Ascani, 47, who had driven with his family from the Umbrian hill town of Assisi.

But it was also clear, from watching Monday’s proceedings, that there is a profound difference between dying as a pope and dying as an ex-pope.

As John Paul II lay in state for the feast, hotels in Rome were booked and the wait to see the body threatened to be so long — approaching 24 hours, according to reports at the time — that officials closed the line.

In Benedict’s case, the wait was an hour. The crowds around the basilica were larger than normal, but were contained near the main square. Between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., about 40,000 people filed papers, according to the Vatican.

And most of all, there was little overt emotion. Some people passing by were just tourists who wanted to see the basilica. Many held their phones aloft as they approached the hearse. The guards kept the line moving quickly – “Move forward! Go ahead!” they told the crowds — making it difficult for anyone who wanted an intimate moment.

John Paul’s decline gripped the Catholic faithful because it was so public and painful—just one part of the reason his death provoked such an outpouring. Even days before he died, the 84-year-old pope appeared at a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square, struggling to utter a coherent syllable.

But in Benedict’s case, the act of aging happened mostly behind the scenes. Pope Francis replaced him as Catholicism’s spiritual authority, and since retiring, Benedict has left his mark only sparingly, in occasional writings or appearing in Vatican photos. Some conservative Catholics looked to him as a regular inspiration. But its daily relevance to many in the faith had diminished.

“Now he’s yesterday’s pope,” said Gerard O’Connell, a Vatican correspondent who has covered the church for more than three decades and who wrote an account of the conclave that chose Francis.

O’Connell said Benedict was given an emotional send-off – but that was in 2013. when he abdicated. More than 100,000 people gathered for his final address, some in tears as he spoke of loving the church and having “the courage to make difficult, painful decisions.” The next day he was flown by helicopter to his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, no longer pope.

“I remember very well the feeling of mourning, of emotion,” O’Connell said.

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Benedict had earned a central place in modern Catholicism even before he became pope, first with his theological studies, then with his two decades as John Paul’s trusted lieutenant. After eight years as pontiff, he became the first pope to abdicate in 600 years.

But some people in line Monday noted that Benedict, for all his stature in the faith, seemed so tiny in death. Part of it was the scale of the basilica. Even before his health began to fail, he was only 5 feet 7. In recent years, he had slouched more and more.

“He looked so fragile,” said Markus Lautenschlager, a Protestant pastor from Germany visiting Rome with his family, who were waiting in line to pay their respects.

Lying down, his hands were folded at his waist and holding rosaries. His skin had a greyish tint.

“It was a bit painful,” said Denisa Manojlovic, who visited Rome from Croatia.

Pope Francis last Wednesday indicated that his predecessor was in failing health and asked for prayers. Francis went to visit Benedict’s body soon after his death and will do so officiated at the funeral Mass on Thursday.

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Authorities expect around 60,000 people for the funeral. Benedict will then be buried in the caves in the bowels of St. Peter, where the remains of 91 popes are kept. The funeral will not have the pomp of funerals given to previous popes, a mark of Benedict’s status as pope emeritus. Only two delegations are present – from Italy and Germany.

Even on Monday, Benedict did not have all the trappings of a pontiff. The Vatican news site noted that Benedict lay without a pallium, a garment that would not be used for a “retired prelate.”

For almost a decade, Benedict lived in a monastery inside the Vatican walls; he had died there too. His body was transferred by van to the basilica early Monday morning, then carried into the basilica by 10 white-gloved officials on a platform covered with red cloth. Cardinal Mauro Gambetti, the bishop of the basilica, prayed that the “late pope emeritus” would be welcomed to the “eternal abode.”

Before the public opening, Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni paid their respects.

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