An extraordinary period for the modern church ended with Francis presiding over the funeral of his retired predecessor. Some conservatives found the ceremony too modest for their standard-bearer.
VATICAN CITY — The Roman Catholic Church on Thursday laid to rest Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in front of a fog-shrouded St. Peter’s Basilica with an extraordinary funeral presided over by his own successor, Francis, a final peculiarity to end a strange era in the modern church in which two popes, one resigned and one in power, one conservative and one liberal, coexisted in the tiny confines of the Vatican.
“Benedict, faithful friend of the Bridegroom,” Francis said in his homily, referring to Jesus’ role as husband to the church, “may your joy be complete as you hear his voice, now and forever!”
It was Francis’ only explicit mention of Benedict, who died on Saturday at 95, in a homily immediately scorned as too modest by bereft supporters who said it had failed to articulate and celebrate the legacy of a pope who had become a touchstone for conservatives in the church.
The unprecedented moment of Francis presiding over the final farewell of a conservative icon was the coda to a bizarre chapter in church history. The strangeness only heightened curiosity over how the funeral would unfold, and how Francis would thread a course between honoring Benedict’s request for a simple send-off and not offending the church’s conservative wing, which wanted much more for its departed standard-bearer.
Francis opted for a homily that reflected his own vision of the church, and paid respects to Benedict by repeatedly citing his predecessor’s words. Francis reflected the theologian’s core belief of putting Jesus at the center of life by meditating on how Jesus put himself in God’s hands.
Above all, close collaborators of Francis said, the homily centered on a pope’s, and Benedict’s, core role as a pastor, something Francis himself holds dear and above the old church rituals, the so-called smells and bells, adored by traditionalists.
“God’s faithful people, gathered here, now accompanies and entrusts to him the life of the one who was their pastor,” Francis said.
A close adviser to Francis, Cardinal Michael Czerny of Canada, said, “The Holy Father gave a beautiful homily reflecting on the mission of a pastor, in closest imitation of Christ.” The pope, he said, concluded “this most beautiful spiritual portrait” of a devoted pastor by applying it “wholeheartedly to his predecessor.”
“So please don’t be disappointed for the lack of a eulogy or panegyric,” Cardinal Czerny said. “That’s for another time and place, not a Eucharist of Christian burial.”
Not everyone was satisfied with Francis’ approach, which Benedict’s supporters said seemed paltry in comparison with the homily that Benedict himself, then a cardinal, delivered at the funeral of John Paul II — an eloquent and full-throated ode to the life and legacy of a larger-than-life figure who ran the church for more than a quarter-century.
“Benedict would have deserved the same category of funeral as John Paul II,” Michael Hesemann, a biographer and friend of Benedict’s, said as he walked into the Vatican after the service. “I’m a little bit sad that there were shortages in the ceremony itself, in the homily and so on. The homily was a little bit standard. You could have given the same homily for anybody: any cardinal, any bishop or even the butcher next door.”
He said that while Benedict “would have been the first to have said, ‘I only want a simple funeral,’” he deserved more. But Benedict would not have been hurt, he said. “He was the most forgiving person,” Mr. Hesemann said.
In some respects, the ceremony was the last awkward situation created by Benedict, who kept the title of pope, and continued wearing his white robes, long after he retired in 2013. His resignation was the first by a pope in six centuries, a stunning act in terms of legacy and precedent, and it overshadowed the rest of Benedict’s often crisis-ridden pontificate.
But the funeral, while short on papal pageantry, was also something much more than the memorial to a prominent cardinal.
The Sistine Chapel Choir sang hymns. The smoke from incense mingled with the fog. The pages of an open book of the Gospels blew in the wind atop the simple cypress casket containing his remains.
Cardinals dressed in special red vestments for the burial of a supreme pontiff surrounded the coffin, which sat on a large and ornate carpet below the basilica steps. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, dean of the College of Cardinals, who celebrated the Requiem Mass, sprinkled the coffin with holy water.
The coffin contained not just Benedict’s remains but also several objects, including commemorative medals and coins minted during his papacy, which ran from 2005 to 2013. A short text describing his pontificate was sealed inside a metal cylinder and placed with his body along with episcopal palliums, the white wool vestment worn around the neck that symbolizes a bishop’s ecclesiastical jurisdiction.
The crowd numbered in the tens of thousands, though it failed to entirely fill St. Peter’s Square and it did not flow into the broad Via della Conciliazione as it did when Pope John Paul II, for whom Benedict served a quarter century as the church’s chief doctrinal watchdog, died in 2005. John Paul’s funeral drew so many faithful that the population of Rome essentially doubled. Heads of state or government from more than 70 countries came. Royalty and the leaders of other major religions filled the seats of honor.
For the retired pope, only two official delegations took part in the ceremony. The Italian delegation was led by President Sergio Mattarella. The delegation from Benedict’s native Germany was led by President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Other countries took part in a private capacity, including the monarchs of Spain and Belgium, and the presidents of Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Hungary, Togo and San Marino, along with the prime ministers of many other nations. President Biden, who is Catholic, did not attend but sent the ambassador to the Holy See, Joe Donnelly.
In the front rows and on the altar, 125 cardinals prayed in their red vestments and caps. There are currently 224 cardinals in College of Cardinals that will elect Francis’ successor. Benedict named 64 of these. His predecessor, John Paul II, named 49, while Francis has named 111 cardinals, a number expected to grow as he remains in office, increasingly the likelihood that a conclave packed with his choices will select, when Francis dies or resigns, someone in his mold to continue his agenda of opening up the church.
That made the funeral especially poignant for the conservatives who looked to Benedict as a guiding light, marking as it did an unambiguous end to his role as their leader.
Among the cardinals sitting in the front rows were prelates who were stripped of their offices and influence after Francis took over.
There was Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, whom Benedict appointed as his replacement as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and whom Francis later fired.
Near him sat Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, a secretary of state often engrossed in Vatican scandals, whom Francis also replaced.
Standing on the altar was Cardinal Robert Sarah, 77, from Guinea, a hero to Vatican traditionalists and a leading candidate to fill Benedict’s shoes. In 2014, Francis chose Cardinal Sarah to run the Vatican department with liturgical oversight, but then quickly isolated him, surrounding him with papal allies. The pope eventually accepted his resignation, in 2021.
In the front row was Benedict’s closest collaborator and longtime secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, who has long caused consternation among supporters of Francis who suspect him of trying to sabotage the current pope.
During the highly choreographed Mass, none of the conservative prelates betrayed any dissatisfaction, but in the wider traditionalist world, it was clear that not everyone liked the scaled-down service.
“It’s just painful that this great and holy man, Joseph Ratzinger, was given to the ages with such repulsive disrespect by his successor,” Rod Dreher, a hard-right critic of Francis and die-hard traditionalist who left the church, wrote on Twitter. “Contempt laid bare, on a world stage.””
Admirers of Benedict in the square ignored instructions in multiple languages to “refrain from raising banners or raising flags,” and lifted a large white sheet reading “Santo Subito” — “Sainthood Now.”
It was a common refrain during the funeral of John Paul II that put the Polish pope on the fast track to sainthood, to the chagrin of many critics who held him responsible for letting clerical sex abuse fester during his long pontificate. Benedict has a much more complex legacy on the issue, having taken significant actions to force the church to face the scourge, throwing out hundreds of abusive priests, but also failing to hold bishops accountable for protecting abusers.
Benedict may never prompt the same wide public calls for sainthood as his predecessor, but for many Catholics he is deeply mourned.
“I am in pain as if I had lost my own father,” Maria Lulic, a 37-year-old Polish shop assistant, said in the square. “As a Pole, I loved John Paul II, obviously, but Benedict was my spiritual guide, my moral compass.”
“Benedict was a model for me long before he became pope,” said the Rev. Joseph Adusei-Poku, a long-serving priest from Ghana. “And then he was humble enough to retire.”
That resignation imbued the whole ceremony with an otherworldly atmosphere.
“A pope presided over the funeral of another pope!” said a French bishop, Jean-Yves Riocreux. With no conclave to follow the funeral and choose a successor, he noted, “the cardinals who were all there — they go back, they have nothing to do.”
At the conclusion of the Mass, pallbearers in black suits carried the coffin into St. Peter’s Basilica, stopping before Francis, who stood and put his hand on it, closing his eyes for a final blessing and prayer.
Benedict’s coffin was then placed inside a zinc coffin, and then inside a wooden case. According to Benedict’s wishes, he was laid to rest where his mentor, John Paul II, had been before the Vatican moved him upstairs to St. Peter’s Basilica upon his beatification, the penultimate step before sainthood.
The emeritus title that will likely define Benedict through history, and which made for an odd decade in church history and sowed tension into a polarized Vatican, followed him to the end.
At the conclusion of the Mass, Pope Francis offered a “final farewell to Pope Emeritus Benedict,” commending him to “God, our merciful and loving Father.”
Elisabetta Povoledo, Gaia Pianigiani and Emma Bubola contributed reporting from Rome.