ROME – For the past two days, tens of thousands of devotees, tourists, the simply curious and even lapsed Catholics have streamed to the Vatican to say a final farewell to the late Pope Benedict XVI, whose historic resignation forever changed the papacy and the church as a whole.
According to the Vatican, so far around 135,000 people have visited Benedict XVI, who has been lying in state in St. Peter’s Basilica since Monday morning. He will remain there until Thursday, when his funeral will be celebrated by Pope Francis.
Impressions among those who’ve filed through the Vatican to see the late pontiff can best be described as a mixed bag, with some praising his keen intellect and writings, some simply eager to participate in a historic moment, and others fairly critical.
Father Joseph Apfelbeck, who, like Benedict XVI, hails from the Diocese of Regensburg in Bavaria, told Crux that he knew the late pope well and was able to celebrate Mass with him once 20 years ago.
“I think he was a great pope, he was very intelligent and a very religious man,” he said, saying he believes Benedict’s greatest contribution to the church was his desire for believers “to concentrate our personal belief and also the belief of the church, to concentrate on Jesus Christ, on the bible, on the sacraments, the seven sacraments, and also the Holy Mass.”
However, a woman named Miriam who is also from the Regensburg area, had a different opinion.
Speaking to Crux, Miriam said she was already in Rome on vacation when Benedict died, so she came to the Vatican “to see what’s going on.”
A former Catholic, Miriam said she was vaguely familiar with Benedict XVI, and that her father was a worker who had been very involved in social works in Regensburg, so “we are quite connected in the region,” and at one point had done some remodeling on the home of Benedict’s late brother, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger.
“Other than that, there’s not really a connection, we didn’t know him at all as a person,” she said, but described her opinion of the German pope as “very critical.”
Miriam said her impressions of Benedict are that he was “very conservative, very old fashioned,” and was someone who “didn’t give a good impression in terms of resolving all the abuse cases.”
Differing opinions on the pope emeritus are nothing new, especially amongst his countrymen. One thing most people agree on, however, is that regardless of their opinions of the man, his surprise resignation in 2013 was a historic moment, and that by witnessing these days of official mourning and his upcoming funeral to be celebrated by his successor, they are watching history in the making.
Lilla and her daughter Valeria, who are Italian and who were already visiting Rome when Benedict XVI died, said they didn’t follow Benedict’s papacy closely, but came to the Vatican to visit him during his lying in state because “it’s a unique situation, because there has never been a similar case.”
When Benedict XVI announced his resignation, Valeria said “It was strange… We didn’t expect the resignation. A pope doesn’t resign, it’s never happened.”
In a classic example of what Italian’s call dietrologia, meaning the constant search for the real reason behind a statement or event, neither of the women believed Benedict resigned solely for reasons of health, but that he was threatened in some way.
“He, peace to his soul, did what he had to do, he had his reasons,” but in the end, “he couldn’t do much,” Lilla said, saying she and her daughter feel closer to Pope Francis.
“Pope Francis is more welcoming; he is more involved. Pope Ratzinger was perhaps a more rigid pope, selective, but he was still a good pope,” Valeria said.
By the time Benedict died on Dec. 31, 2022, he had spent longer in retirement than he had in office, having reigned as pope for just eight years, and as a pope emeritus for nearly 10.
For that reason, this week’s commemorations are a bit different than they would be for a reigning pope: no death bells were tolled to announce his passing, and no formal proclamation was made by a Vatican official that the pope had died, and the crowds are smaller.
While over 100,000 have already lined up to visit the pope emeritus, the crowd has been nothing like the lengthy lines for John Paul II’s passing in 2005.
There will also be fewer heads of state, with only Italy and Germany invited to send official delegations. Other leaders who wish to attend are invited to do so, but in a private, personal capacity.
So far, in addition to Italy and Germany, state leaders from Spain, Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Hungary, Slovenia, France, and Croatia have all confirmed plans to attend Benedict’s funeral Thursday. The United States will be represented by Ambassador to the Holy See Joseph Donnelly.
Benedict’s funeral rite will be largely similar to that of a reigning pope, but with a few slight modifications, according to Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni, who told journalists Tuesday that there will be “a few original elements which will give the liturgy its own unique aspect.”
At some point Wednesday afternoon, Benedict’s coffin will be closed, signaling the end of his lying in state, and it will be processed out of the basilica into St. Peter’s Square Thursday morning ahead of the funeral, to allow faithful to pray the rosary in front of the coffin before Mass begins.
Papal medals and coins minted during Benedict’s papacy will be placed inside his coffin, made of cypress, along with a scroll recounting his pontificate. The coffin will then be placed inside a larger coffin made of zinc, which will then be welded together and marked with the seal of the papal household.
Following Mass, Benedict’s coffin will be transferred to the Vatican grottos where roughly 90 other popes and dignitaries are buried. He will be entombed in the same place where Pope John Paul II was entombed in 2005, before being transferred to an altar above ground in the main basilica for his canonization.
Speaking to Crux, Father Henry Gaban, a Nigerian priest studying at the Pontifical Gregorian University, said he arrived in Rome for his studies Jan. 1, the day after Benedict passed, and believes “it’s the will of God” that his arrival coincided with this historic moment.
Not only was Benedict XVI the first pope to resign in 600 years, making his burial hugely significant, but it is also the first time on record that a sitting pope has led the funeral of his predecessor.
“It’s a very special moment,” Gaban said, saying this moment for him is “an opportunity for me to pray, to pray for the church and to pray for the repose of his soul…it’s quite a blessing for me to journey with the pope at this moment as well as at his burial.”
Gaban said he was not too familiar with much of Benedict’s papacy, as he was still quite young when Benedict resigned, but he respected the man.
“Some say he’s a conservative, but what I feel is that whether he’s conservative or liberal, he’s still the pope, and he has been the leader of the church. So, he has done his part, and then it has come to an end,” he said.
“So, it’s a moment of mourning, it’s a moment of prayer for the church. The church could be said to be in its lowest moment, but there is still hope for the church, because an era has ended and an era will begin, and we expect more eras to come. All to the glory of God,” he said.
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