Pope Francis hails 'noble and kind' Benedict as world leaders pay tribute

Benedict XVI, who died on Saturday, will be buried on Thursday

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Bells rang out at New Year's Day services on Sunday as Pope Francis praised his “beloved” predecessor Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

Official photos showed the German theologian's body on a catafalque in the chapel of the monastery on the Vatican grounds where he spent the last decade of his life.

As with previous popes, he is dressed in red vestments with a gold-edged mitre on his head, his clasped hands holding a rosary, while behind him is a crucifix, a Christmas tree, candles and a nativity scene.

But he is not wearing the pallium, a vestment reserved for sitting popes.

Benedict, a conservative intellectual who in 2013 became the first pontiff in six centuries to resign, died on Saturday after years of declining health.

His body will be moved on Monday morning to St Peter's Basilica, where for three days the public will be able to pay their respects before a funeral on Thursday overseen by Pope Francis. The service will be “solemn but simple”, the Vatican said.

Pope Francis, 86, paid tribute to his predecessor at a New Year's Eve service on Saturday and again on Sunday.

“Today we entrust the beloved pope emeritus Benedict XVI to the most holy mother [the Virgin Mary], to accompany him in his passage from this world to God,” he said at a mass for peace at St Peter's Basilica.

Later, delivering his Sunday Angelus prayer in front of thousands gathered in St Peter's Square, the pope bowed his head in a moment of silence in memory of the late pontiff.

“Let us all join together, with one heart and one soul, in thanking God for the gift of this faithful servant of the gospel and of the church,” he said.

The last papal funeral, of John Paul II in 2005, drew a million faithful and heads of state from around the world, although Benedict was a more divisive figure.

A brilliant theologian, he alienated many Catholics with his staunch defence of traditional values and as pope struggled to impose his authority on the church as it battled a string of crises, including over clerical sex abuse.

On Saturday night the Vatican released Benedict's two-page “spiritual testimony” written in 2006, a year after his election as pope. Benedict did not update it as he became older and frailer.

In it, he asked in a general, spiritual way, that God would welcome him to internal life “despite all my sins and insufficiencies”.

On Saturday evening, Pope Francis paid tribute to his “sacrifice for the good of the church”.

“With deep feeling, we recall his person, so noble, so gentle,” Pope Francis said. “And we feel in the heart so much gratitude: gratitude to God for having given him to the church and to the world,” the pope said. “Gratitude to him, for all the good he did, and above all for his witness of faith and of prayer, especially in these last years of withdrawn life.

“Only God knows the value and the strength of his intercession, of his sacrifices offered for the good of the church,” Pope Francis said.

Condolences from around the world

Words of praise and fond remembrance were offered by world leaders and religious figures, including the Catholic US President, Joe Biden, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Jewish advocates.

“Jill and I join Catholics around the world, and so many others, in mourning the passing of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI,” Mr Biden said in a written statement.

“I had the privilege of spending time with Pope Benedict at the Vatican in 2011 and will always remember his generosity and welcome as well as our meaningful conversation.”

Mr Biden also recalled Pope Benedict’s 2008 visit to the White House, saying the then pontiff had remarked that “‘the need for global solidarity is as urgent as ever, if all people are to live in a way worthy of their dignity’.”

UAE PresidentSheikh Mohamed sent a cable of condolences to Pope Francis following the death of Benedict.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, sent similar cables of condolences to Pope Francis, the state-run Wam news agency reported.

The Holy See's top representative in Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, called for all priests to celebrate a mass for Benedict.

“[We] ask all churches and monasteries to ring the bells as is our tradition … May the Lord grant him eternal rest!”

Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, described Benedict as an “outstanding theologian” who helped bridge the two Christian faiths.

“The absolute authority of Benedict XVI as an outstanding theologian allowed him to make a significant contribution to the development of inter-Christian co-operation … and to the protection of traditional moral values.

“During the papacy of Benedict XVI, the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church developed significantly in the spirit of fraternal co-operation and the desire to interact on how to overcome the sometimes painful legacy of the past.”

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the Anglican Communion, also praised Benedict's role as a thinker and writer.

“Pope Benedict was one of the greatest theologians of his age — committed to the faith of the church and stalwart in its defence. In all things, not least in his writing and his preaching, he looked to Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God. It was abundantly clear that Christ was the root of his thought and the basis of his prayer.”

UN head Antonio Guterres praised Benedict as a man “principled in his faith, tireless in his pursuit of peace, and determined in his defence of human rights.”

“He was a spiritual guide to millions across the world and one of the leading academic theologians of our time … His powerful calls for solidarity with marginalised people everywhere and his urgent appeals to close the widening gap between rich and poor are more relevant than ever,” the UN Secretary General said.

Olaf Scholz, Chancellor of Benedict's native Germany, said the world had lost a “formative figure”.

“As a 'German' Pope, Benedict XVI was a special church leader for many, not only in this country. The world is losing a formative figure of the Catholic church, a forthright personality and a clever theologian. My thoughts are with Pope Francis,” he tweeted.

Benedict's role regarding abuse within the church

However, there was also a reminder of the role that Benedict played in the handling of widespread abuses by church officials.

“In our view, Pope Benedict XVI is taking decades of the church’s darkest secrets to his grave with him,” said Snap, the main US-based group of clergy abuse survivors.

“In our view, the death of Pope Benedict XVI is a reminder that, much like John Paul II, Benedict was more concerned about the church’s deteriorating image and financial flow to the hierarchy versus grasping the concept of true apologies followed by true amends to victims of abuse.”

Benedict pushed major changes to church law to make it easier to defrock predator priests and sacked hundreds of them while also becoming the first pontiff to meet abuse survivors. However, he also refused to accept personal or institutional responsibility for the problem, even after he was faulted by an independent report for his handling of four cases while he was Munich bishop.

Funeral arrangements for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

Pope Francis greets Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in the former Convent Mater Ecclesiae at the Vatican in November 2016. AP

Pope Benedict spent two more years in papal retirement than in his actual papacy, which began in 2005, and spent the last decade away from public sight on the Vatican grounds.

While he was pope, Benedict was also head of state, since the Vatican is an independent city-state. But with no such role at the time of his death, the Vatican’s funeral details reflected a scaling back of pomp and protocol.

There was no tolling of the bells of St Peter’s Basilica, no solemn announcement by a Vatican monsignor to the faithful in the square. A fisherman’s ring did not get smashed and the diplomatic corps were not mobilised to send official delegations to Rome.

When John Paul II died in 2005, presidents, prime ministers and kings from more than 100 countries attended the funeral presided over by none other than Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would become Benedict XVI after his election as pope 10 days later.

For Benedict’s funeral, the Vatican only invited Italy and Germany to send official delegations, and advised foreign embassies that any other leaders who wished to attend could do so but only in their “private capacity.”

Benedict’s body will lie in state in St. Peter’s Basilica starting from Monday, but the three-day window for the faithful to pay their respects suggests a limited outpouring is expected. After John Paul’s death, an estimated 2 million people lined up for four days and nights to say a final farewell, with some camping out on the cobblestones.

Italian security officials estimate about 60,000 could attend the funeral, far fewer than the 300,000 who packed the piazza and surrounding streets in 2005.

Updated: January 01, 2023, 5:02 PM