More than 135,000 people have already flocked to the Vatican, a day before the funeral on Thursday of the former pope Benedict XVI – an unprecedented ceremony in the modern history of the Catholic church given he will be buried by the incumbent, Pope Francis.
Benedict died on Saturday, aged 95, almost a decade after becoming the first pope in 600 years to resign.
The number of Catholics paying tribute in St Peter’s Basilica, where his body is lying in state for three days before the funeral, has beaten the expectations of Rome officials.
Francis, during his weekly audience on Wednesday, hailed his predecessor, a conservative thinker, as “a great master of catechesis”.
Among those paying their respects at St Peter’s Basilica have been hardline conservatives leaders, including the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, and his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki.
“There have been so many,” said Marco Tosatti, a Vatican journalist. “He had a big impact and was loved by many people, as much as he was hated by the newspapers.”
Benedict led the Catholic church for eight years before resigning in 2013, citing a decline in his health. He chose to be called Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI after his abdication, instead of reverting to Joseph Ratzinger, and continued in the Vatican and wear a white cassock.
He will be given a funeral similar to that of a reigning pope and will be laid to rest in the tomb where Pope John Paul II was buried before his beatification.
Benedict will be buried with coins and medals minted during his time as pope, the palliums he wore as part of his robes and a metal cylinder containing a rogito – a text describing his papacy.
Only two countries – Italy and Benedict’s native Germany – are sending official state delegations to the funeral.
Despite being in the background for the past decade, Benedict came forward on a variety of issues, often clashing with the views of the more liberal-minded Francis.
In one of his most controversial essays, published in 2019, Benedict blamed the church’s sexual abuse scandals on the sexual revolution of the 1960s and “homosexual cliques” among priests. His opinion came two months after an unprecedented Vatican summit on tackling clerical sexual abuse, and sharply contrasted with that of Pope Francis, who blamed the scandals on a clerical culture that elevated priests above the laity.
The results of a German investigation published last January said Benedict had failed to act against four priests accused of child sexual abuse during his time as archbishop of Munich.
In Rome, a further 70,000 Catholics are expected on Thursday.
Iacopo Scaramuzzi, a Vatican journalist for La Repubblica newspaper, said: “Seventy thousand is large but is not comparable to the numbers who came for John Paul II – for him it was 600,000 a day. Benedict was not a very popular man, in fact he was deliberately unpopular … a conservative intellect who went against the current and who disliked crowds. Some want him to become a saint straight away, but he was nothing like John Paul II.”