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Historic but spare funeral for Pope Benedict XVI, led by Pope Francis

Pope Francis touches the coffin of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI before it is carried away after a funeral Mass in St. Peter’s Square on Thursday. (Ben Curtis/AP)
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VATICAN CITY — For the first time in its modern history, the Catholic Church buried a retired pontiff, following a stripped-down and solemn ceremony Thursday that included a final, indelible gesture: Pope Francis bowing his head and placing his hand on the coffin of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI before it was carried away.

The requiem Mass, conducted as a heavy fog lifted, used a mix of ancient rituals and new precedents to pay tribute 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’s 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 sitting pope vs. as a retired and controversial one.

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But the funeral was captivating for the juxtaposition of two men, Benedict and Francis, one being honored and one there to do the honoring, one who died Saturday at 95 and the other who, at 86, is already one of the oldest popes on record. Thursday, the men who had been living side by side for 10 years were again just 15 feet apart, with Francis — pushed to the altar in a wheelchair — sitting in front of a cypress casket holding his predecessor.

“We now offer our final 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 conservatives — somebody who shaped the faith with his moral certitude. As pontiff, he prayed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, celebrated Mass at Yankee Stadium, named 84 cardinals and took 24 trips abroad. But he built his reputation above all by doggedly protecting the church’s core teachings, even when they were unpopular among practicing Catholics, a method that Francis has made a point to soften.

Catholic faithful pay respects to Pope Benedict XVI at St. 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 homily steeped in verse, 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 as you hear his voice.”

Francis’s approach marked a notable departure from the homily at the last papal funeral, delivered by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger 10 days before he would be elected as Benedict. Then, Ratzinger had woven verse and biography, describing John Paul II’s teenage years working at a chemical plant, 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: “Saint! Saint!”

Thursday, when Francis finished, there was silence.

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

Still, there was criticism from some traditionalist quarters. Rod Dreher, an American commentator who converted to Orthodoxy but shares ideological ground with Catholic traditionalists, called the homily “mean-spirited and ungenerous.” It was short of what the moment required, said Dreher, who attended the funeral.

Others said Francis had fittingly paid tribute to a predecessor who preferred that attention be directed at the church and not at himself.

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

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Though the Vatican had previewed that Benedict’s funeral would be “simple,” he received many of the passages afforded other pontiffs: For three days this week, he lay in state for public visitation. Certain tokens from his pontificate, as well as a written text describing his life and reign and resignation, were enclosed in his coffin. Thursday after the funeral, he received a final ritualistic burial reserved for popes, with his coffin encased in zinc and then enclosed in an outer casket of oak.

But because Benedict was not a sitting pope, there will be no immediate conclave or intrigue. The church will forgo its customary nine-day mourning period. In passages during the funeral, Benedict was cited 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 all reaches of the world. Some waved flags of Bavaria, the part of Germany where Benedict was born, baptized and ordained. Some attendees said they had been personally moved by Benedict’s teachings or shared his vision for the church.

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“We’re here for Benedict,” said Tomasz Kotwicki, 58, a doctor from Poland. He said that Francis, during the ceremony, looked “very tired.”

“Just like Benedict did in 2013” before resigning, he said.

That abdication, and Francis’s subsequent election, led to a decade-long coexistence, by turns warm and uneasy. Francis likened Benedict’s presence to having “a wise grandfather in the house,” and Benedict made clear that the church had only one authority — Francis. But because of the profound differences in their approaches, they were sometimes seen as commanding different poles of the church.

In 2021, Francis revoked a signature liturgical decision of Benedict’s by imposing restrictions on the old Latin Mass, a rite favored by some traditionalists. In an interview published this week by a German outlet, Benedict’s longtime personal secretary and confidant, Georg Gänswein, called that decision a “cut” against the pope emeritus that created “pain in his heart.”

These Americans are devoted to the old Latin Mass. They are also at odds with Pope Francis.

Church historian Alberto Melloni said that following Benedict’s funeral, “the pontificate of Francis starts anew.” But it’s unclear whether it gets harder or easier. Benedict, in a few moments, broke his pledge of silence and contradicted Francis, creating headaches for the church. But some church watchers saw Benedict, who was generally deferential, as preventing conservative dissent from reaching a boil.

With various comments over the years, Francis has indicated that he’s open to following Benedict’s resignation by eventually retiring, in the event his health worsens. That doesn’t seem imminent; he keeps a brisk schedule. Speculation about his future has spiked now and then — particularly after knee pain last year limited his mobility — but among Vatican watchers, there has long been an assumption that he wouldn’t step down with Benedict still alive, so as to avoid a scenario with two ex-popes. Now, for the first time in his pontificate, there are zero ex-popes.

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“His hands are no longer as 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 has been taken freely.

On Thursday, after Francis placed his hand on Benedict’s coffin, 12 pallbearers took it back into St. Peter’s Basilica, where soon after it was enclosed in its two additional layers and buried in the grottoes. Benedict’s remains were placed in the same spot that once held John Paul II, before his body was exhumed in 2011 and transported to the basilica’s upper floor.

The Vatican released the text of the document that was buried with Benedict in a protective cylinder. The text represents the church’s narrative of the 265th pope, describing his “vast and profound” biblical and theological knowledge and his promotion of dialogue with other religions. And it paints a picture of the astonishing morning in 2013 when Benedict declared in Latin that he no longer had the “strength of mind or body” for the job.

The document says of Benedict: “His memory remains in the heart of the church and of all humanity.”

Photo highlights from the funeral of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI