The former pope Benedict XVI has been laid to rest after a funeral in a mist-filled St Peter’s Square attended by an estimated 50,000 people.
Benedict died on Saturday, aged 95, almost a decade after becoming the first pope in 600 years to resign.
He became the first former pontiff in the modern history of the Catholic church to be buried by an incumbent pope, Francis, who arrived outside St Peter’s Basilica in a wheelchair on Thursday to preside over a mass that began with the tolling of bells and ended with a long applause from the crowd.
Vatican officials originally estimated that 100,000 people would fill St Peter’s Square for the funeral after almost 200,000 came to pay their respects during the three days Benedict’s body lay in state.
“This is a very important moment, especially as we are seeing one pope bury another,” said Vanessa Rivas, from Spain and in Rome on holiday with her husband, George. “We were here and wanted to come, also to try to understand how the Catholic church might develop after this.”
Rachel Alomso, also from Spain but living in Rome, was among those who filed into the square before 7am. The 35-year-old described herself as a “devoted Catholic”.
“Benedict was a very important pope who did many things, the fruit of which we might not realise for several years,” she said. “He always took on his tasks with humility, even when he realised he had to resign because he didn’t have the strength to continue as pope.”
Francis, who has knee problems, thanked his predecessor for the “knowledge and dedication” he bestowed to his papacy.
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 after his abdication, instead of reverting to Joseph Ratzinger, and continued to live in the Vatican and to wear a white cassock.
Cardinals and clergy from around the world attended the funeral, as did the heads of state and the prime ministers of Italy and Benedict’s native Germany. Other national leaders and royals attended in private capacities.
Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Benedict’s long-serving personal secretary, kissed the coffin at the beginning of the ceremony. Several banners in the square read “Danke Benedikt” while others called for him to be made a “santo subito” (saint now).
Lea Benigno and her husband, Nino, travelled to the ceremony from Palermo in Sicily. Benigno said she had met Benedict twice, the second time two years before his resignation. “I was at an event organised by nuns,” she said. “He was very humble, despite his rigid personality, and affectionate. He told me ‘I will pray for you’ – those words have stayed with me.”
Benedict was given a funeral similar to that of a reigning pontiff. His body, carried in a cypress coffin, was placed inside a zinc one after the ceremony, and then finally into another made from oak. He was then laid to rest in the tomb where Pope John Paul II was buried before beatification.
Benedict was 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.
Matteo Bruni, the Vatican’s spokesperson, said it would not be possible for pilgrims to visit the tomb before Sunday.
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.
Among those paying their respects at St Peter’s Basilica in recent days have been hardline conservative leaders, including the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, and his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki.
Marco Tosatti, a Vatican journalist, said: “He [Benedict] had a big impact and was loved by many people, as much as he was hated by the newspapers.”
In one of Benedict’s most controversial essays, published in 2019, he 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 and Freising.