Pilgrims Throng St. Peter’s Square for Benedict’s Funeral Mass

‘Danke Papst Benedikt’ and ‘Santo Subito’ Banners Wave in St. Peter’s Square

Pope Francis presides over the solemn funeral Mass of Pope Benedict XVI Jan. 5, 2023.
Pope Francis presides over the solemn funeral Mass of Pope Benedict XVI Jan. 5, 2023. (photo: Vatican Media)

VATICAN CITY — Fog that had descended on Rome early this morning, obscuring the cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica, began to slowly lift as pallbearers carried Pope Benedict XVI’s simple cypress coffin into St. Peter’s Square to long and moving applause. 

Cardinals attend the funeral Mass of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
Cardinals attend the funeral Mass of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.Vatican Media

An estimated 50,000 mourners had gathered in the square, some camping out overnight, to say their final farewell to the beloved pontiff, who died aged 95 on Dec. 31, the feast of Pope St. Sylvester.

Cardinals attend the funeral Mass of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
Benedict's coffin is shown with thousands of pilgrims in attendance at his funeral Mass. Vatican Media

Bavarian and German flags with the words Danke Papst Benedikt! and Santo Subito fluttered in the mist as the mourning bells of St. Peter’s tolled. The faithful collectively recited the Rosary for the soul of Benedict in an atmosphere of recollection, reverence and prayer. 

After being solemnly carried into the square through the front of the basilica, the coffin was laid to rest on a red carpet at the foot of the altar, with a book of the Gospels placed on top. Benedict’s long-serving personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, then bowed down to kiss the coffin before taking his seat in the front row, along with those closest to Benedict, including consecrated Memores Domini laywomen who cared for him for many years. 

Cardinals attend the funeral Mass of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
Archbishop Georg Ganswein kisses the coffin of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Vatican Media

A procession of hundreds of cardinals, bishops and an estimated 3,700 priests took up their seats. Among them was 90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong, a close ally of Benedict in the struggle to safeguard religious freedoms for Catholics in Communist China. Cardinals Sean O’Malley of Boston, Timothy Dolan of New York, Robert McElroy of San Diego and Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston were among the U.S. prelates to attend the solemn funeral, along with several Eastern patriarchs, including Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, the Chaldean Catholic patriarch of Baghdad, and Cardinal Bechara Rai, Maronite patriarch of Antioch in Lebanon. 

Cardinals attend the funeral Mass of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
Cardinals attend the funeral Mass of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.Vatican Media

Among the official state representatives were German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and a large delegation of Italian dignitaries headed by President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. 

Other nations sent officials, royalty or diplomatic representatives but not as official delegations. The U.S. was represented by President Joe Biden’s ambassador to the Holy See, Joseph Donnelly.

Pope Francis entered the sagrato in front of the basilica shortly before 9:30am to become the first pope to celebrate the funeral of his predecessor since 1802, when Pius VII had the remains of Pius VI brought to Rome to rebury him after he had died and was buried a few years earlier in exile as a prisoner of Napoleon. 

Cardinals attend the funeral Mass of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
Cardinal Joseph Zen attends the funeral Mass of Benedict XVI (Photo: Diane Montagna)

The Holy Father presided over the initial rite, the entrance prayers and the Penitential Act. Three readings were then proclaimed to the faithful: the first (Isaiah 12: 16-19) read in Spanish, Psalm 23 in Latin, the second reading (1 Peter 1:3-9) in English and the Gospel (Luke 23:39-46) in Italian. 

The Gospel reading was of the “Good Thief” who converts on the crucifix next to Jesus and allows the Lord to proclaim the Resurrection with the words: “Truly I tell you: today you will be with me in paradise.” A Mass booklet was given to the faithful so they could better participate in the liturgy. 

With an image of Christ’s resurrection draped over the front of the basilica behind him, Francis began his short homily with Jesus’ final words on the cross, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 12:46) — words, the Pope said, that “summed up” Jesus’ “entire life: a ceaseless self-entrustment into the hands of his Father.” In contrast to Benedict’s homily at Pope St. John Paul II’s funeral in 2005 in which he explicitly mentioned the many qualities and achievements of his close friend and collaborator, Francis implicitly paid tribute to the life of Joseph Ratzinger with these words, associating him with faithfully fulfilling the demands and prayerful devotion of consecrated life. 

“God’s faithful people, gathered here, now accompany and entrust to him the life of the one who was their pastor,” he said. “Like the women at the tomb, we, too, have come with the fragrance of gratitude and the balm of hope, in order to show him once more the love that is undying,” the Pope concluded. “We want to do this with the same wisdom, tenderness, and devotion that he bestowed upon us over the years. Together, we want to say: ‘Father, into your hands we commend his spirit.’”  

The Holy Father added, “Benedict, faithful friend of the Bridegroom, may your joy be complete as you hear his voice, now and forever!” 

At the end of the simple and solemn requiem Mass, the first for a deceased pope not to have the Roman Canon since the sixth century, Pope Francis presided over the Final Commendation and Valediction, which were followed by a moment of silent prayer. Long applause and chants of Santo Subito! and Viva il Papa! were heard as the assembled cardinals processed back into the basilica. 

At the same time, solemn organ music was played and bells tolled as the pallbearers then lifted the coffin and carried it to behind the altar where Pope Francis bowed, placed his hand on the wooden cover, and blessed it. Pallbearers then carried the cypress-encased coffin through the main door of the basilica after which Benedict was buried in the Vatican grottoes in a private ceremony. 

Cardinals attend the funeral Mass of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
Pope Francis says a final farewell to Benedict at the funeral Mass of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.Vatican Media

Warm tributes to Benedict XVI have been pouring in since his death on the feast of St. Sylvester. In comments to the Register, Cardinal Raymond Burke said he believed Joseph Ratzinger’s “greatest legacy is his teaching and his cultivation and promotion of the more ancient usage of the Roman Rite.” The American cardinal, whom Benedict appointed prefect of the Apostolic Signatura in 2008, said the deceased German pontiff will be “remembered for the depth of teaching and for the thoroughly accessible manner in which he imparted it.” 

Ambrogio Jonghyu Jeong, South Korea’s former ambassador to the Holy See (2016-2018), told the Register that following Benedict’s death, “the general sense of loss among Korean Catholics is immense.” The former diplomat, who has translated seven books of Joseph Ratzinger into Korean, said that nine years ago Pope Francis’ election “was welcomed” and he “was a kind of popstar in Korea.” Meanwhile, he said Pope Benedict had been “gradually forgotten; [but] recently the abdicated pope, Pope Benedict, has been rediscovered.” 

German author Paul Badde, who wrote the 2018 book The Holy Veil of Manoppello and was close to Benedict, said what struck him most about the funeral was the Gospel reading of the “Good Thief.” The reading was “the first canonization in history,” Badde said, and that couldn’t have represented a clearer indication of Benedict’s prospective canonization in the future. After that, Badde noted that the Gospel goes on to say that “darkness came over the whole land” but in Rome today “it was the opposite.” 

“While it had been foggy the entire morning,” Badde continued, “all of a sudden, as a celestial part of the beautiful liturgy on the ground, the sun was reflected in the golden sphere on top of the cupola of St. Peter’s at this vigil of the Epiphany of the Lord, which will be the true legacy of Benedict XVI: making the Face of God known all over the world.”