housands of mourners have gathered in St Peter’s Square where the funeral of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has begun.
The late former pontiff’s coffin was carried into the Vatican square on Thursday morning, where 100,000 people are expected to pay their final respects at a two-hour service that began around 8.30am GMT.
Thick fog enshrouded the Vatican before dawn as civil protection crews and police manned metal detectors and barricades to herd well-wishers into the square.
To the sound of tolling bells, 12 pallbearers carried the Pope’s wooden coffin out of St Peter’s Basilica shortly before 8am GMT and placed it before the thousands of faithful gathered in the square.
Applause broke out across the vast, cobbled esplanade, in a sign of respect for Benedict, a hero to Roman Catholic conservatives who shocked the world by resigning nearly a decade ago.
Police estimated some 100,000 would attend the funeral, higher than an original estimate of 60,000, Italian media reported, citing police security plans.
Pope Francis is presiding over the funeral, an event drawing heads of state and royalty despite Benedict’s requests for simplicity and Vatican efforts to keep the first funeral for an emeritus pope in modern times low-key.
Only Italy and Germany were invited to send official delegations, and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Italian President Sergio Mattarella confirmed their participation.
But other heads of state and government decided to take the Vatican up on its offer and come in their “private capacity”. They included several other heads of state, at least four prime ministers and two delegations of royal representatives.
The funeral rite calls for Benedict’s coffin to be carried out from the basilica and placed before the altar as the faithful recite the rosary.
The ritual itself is modelled on the code used for dead popes but with some modifications given Benedict was not a reigning pope when he died.
After the Mass, Benedict’s cypress coffin is to be placed inside a zinc one, then an outer oak casket before being entombed in the crypt in the grottos underneath the basilica that once held the tomb of St John Paul II before it was moved upstairs into the main basilica.
Some 200,000 paid tribute to Benedict during three days of public viewing in St Peter’s Basilica, with one of the last ones Friar Rosario Vitale, who spent an hour praying by his body.
He said Benedict had given him a special dispensation to begin the process of becoming a priest, which was required because of a physical disability.
“So today I came here to pray on his tomb, on his body and to say ‘thank you’ for my future priesthood, for my ministry,” he said. “I owe him a lot and this for me was really a gift to be able to pray for an hour on his bier.”
The former Joseph Ratzinger, who died on December 31 at age 95, is considered one of the 20th century’s greatest theologians and spent his lifetime upholding church doctrine.
But he will go down in history for a singular, revolutionary act that changed the future of the papacy: He retired, the first pope in six centuries to do so.
Francis has praised Benedict’s courage in stepping aside when he believed he no longer had the strength to lead the church, saying it “opened the door” to other popes doing the same.
Francis, for his part, recently said he has already left written instructions outlining the conditions in which he too would resign if he were to become incapacitated.
Benedict never intended his retirement to last as long as it did – at nearly 10 years it was longer than his eight-year pontificate.
And the unprecedented situation of a retired pope living alongside a reigning one prompted calls for protocols to guide future popes emeritus to prevent any confusion about who is really in charge.
During St John Paul II’s quarter-century as pope, the former Joseph Ratzinger spearheaded a crackdown on dissent as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, taking action against the left-leaning liberation theology that spread in Latin America in the 1970s and against dissenting theologians and nuns who did not toe the Vatican’s hard line on matters like sexual morals.
His legacy was marred by the clergy sexual abuse scandal, even though he recognised earlier than most the “filth” of priests who raped children, and actually laid the groundwork for the Holy See to punish them.
As cardinal and pope, he passed sweeping church legislation that resulted in 848 priests being defrocked from 2004-2014, roughly his pontificate with a year on either end.
But abuse survivors still held him responsible for the crisis, for failing to sanction any bishop who moved abusers around and identifying him as embodying the clerical system that long protected the institution over victims.
“Any celebration that marks the life of abuse enablers like Benedict must end,” said the main US survivor group SNAP.
While his funeral is novel, it does have some precedent: In 1802, Pope Pius VII presided over the funeral in St Peter’s of his predecessor, Pius VI, who had died in exile in France in 1799 as a prisoner of Napoleon.