(AP) — With bells tolling, tens of thousands of faithful, political leaders and the pope himself mourned Benedict XVI, the German theologian who made history by resigning the papacy, at a rare requiem Mass Thursday for a dead pontiff presided over by a living one.
The crowd applauded as pallbearers carried Benedict’s cypress coffin out of the fog-shrouded St Peter’s Basilica and rested it before the altar in the vast square outside.
Pope Francis, wearing the crimson vestments typical of papal funerals, then opened the service with a prayer and closed it by solemnly blessing the simple casket — decorated only with the former pope’s coat of arms. It was later entombed in the basilica grotto.
Heads of state and royalty, clergy from around the world and thousands of regular people flocked to the ceremony, despite Benedict’s request for simplicity and official efforts to keep the first funeral for a pope emeritus in modern times low-key.
Many mourners hailed from Benedict’s native Bavaria and donned traditional dress, including boiled wool coats to guard against the morning chill.
“We came to pay homage to Benedict and wanted to be here today to say goodbye,” said Raymond Mainar, who travelled from a small village east of Munich for the funeral. “He was a very good pope.”
Ignoring exhortations for decorum at the end, some in the crowd held banners or shouted “Santo Subito!” — “Sainthood Now!” — echoing the spontaneous chants that erupted during St John Paul II’s 2005 funeral.
The former Joseph Ratzinger, who died 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, saying it “opened the door” for other popes to do the same.
Some 50,000 people attended Thursday’s Mass, according to the Vatican, after around 200,000 paid their respects during three days of public viewing.
While Thursday’s Mass was unusual, 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.