Pope Francis joined tens of thousands of faithful in St. Peter’s Square on Thursday at a funeral Mass for Benedict XVI, a rare gathering for a dead pope presided by a living one.
The Vatican, enveloped in a thick fog, featured heads of state and bishops from around the world who came to Rome to mourn Benedict’s death and remember his papacy.
“Holding fast to the Lord’s last words and to the witness of his entire life, we too, as an ecclesial community, want to follow in his steps and to commend our brother into the hands of the Father,” Francis told the 50,000 in attendance.
Among the throngs of pilgrims in attendance were German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz and a large delegation of Italian dignitaries headed by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. The United States was represented by President Joseph Donnelly, who serves as ambassador to the Holy See.
Born Joseph Ratzinger, who died on Dec. 31 at age 95, is considered one of the 20th century’s greatest theologians. He served as head of the Catholic Church from 2005 until his surprise resignation from the papacy in 2013, becoming the first pontiff in 600 years to resign his post.
The funeral Mass comes after some 200,000 mourners had visited the Vatican for three days of public viewing.
After the Mass, Benedict’s wood coffin was placed inside a zinc one, then an outer oak casket before being entombed in an underground crypt inside the Vatican.
Ratzinger was made pope on April 19, 2005 — following the death of Pope John Paul II — and took on the name Benedict XVI as the 265th man to head the Roman Catholic Church. Not only did he have big shoes to fill, but by 2010, Benedict was forced to deal with the ongoing clergy sex abuse scandal that plagued many parishes and seminaries around the world.
Indeed, the biggest challenge for Benedict was the allegations of sexual abuse by parish priests of children and young men, particularly in the United States, Ireland and his native Germany.
Benedict’s decision to retire centred around his advanced age and inability to carry on the demanding role of pope. After his retirement, Benedict spent the rest of his life living at the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery located in Vatican City.
His legacy is mixed. Critics blamed Benedict for his inability to stop the sex abuse scandals — both in his role as a Vatican official and later as pope — and in aiding the cover-up of pedophile priests. Benedict was largely silent on those allegations during his papacy but addressed them after his retirement.
“Hailing Pope Benedict as a reformer on clergy sex abuse is flat-out wrong,” said Zach Hiner, who serves as the executive director for the clergy-sex abuse supporter group SNAP. “While many in the flock mourn his loss, they also anesthetize themselves more to the dark reality of sexual abuse by the clergy in both past and present cases.”
In 2019, Benedict wrote a 6,000-word essay, published in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, largely blaming the clergy sex abuse crisis on the collapse of moral standards stemming from the 1960s and the failure of Catholic leaders to uphold traditional teachings in the ensuing decades.
“It could be said that in the 20 years from 1960 to 1980, the previously normative standards regarding sexuality collapsed entirely,” Benedict wrote at the time, noting that pedophilia and pornography had become widespread and even accepted by society.
“There could no longer be anything that constituted an absolute good, any more than anything fundamentally evil, only relative moral judgments,” he added. “There no longer was the good, but only the relatively better, contingent on the moment and on circumstances.”
During the funeral Mass, Francis did not talk about Benedict’s legacy in his homily.
"God’s faithful people, gathered here," the pope said, "now accompanies and entrusts to Him the life of the one who was their pastor… We want to do this with the same wisdom, tenderness and devotion that he bestowed upon us over the years. Together, we want to say: “Father, into your hands we commend his spirit.”
Others in the Vatican hierarchy, however, commended Benedict for his love for Jesus and church teachings.
“He was an especially gifted teacher of the Catholic faith with a particular appreciation of the highest and most perfect expression of the faith: sacred worship,” said Cardinal Raymond Burke, who served as the prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. “His sound teaching, especially regarding the sacred liturgy, remains a lasting and living heritage.”
Clemente Lisi is a senior editor at Religion Unplugged and teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City. He is the author of “The FIFA World Cup: A History of the Planet’s Biggest Sporting Event.” Follow him on Twitter @ClementeLisi.