Pope Francis has praised Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s “acute and gentle thought” as he presided over a general audience in the Vatican while thousands paid tribute to the former pope on the final day of public viewing of his body in St Peter’s Basilica.
Francis was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd in the Paul VI auditorium and shouts of “Viva il papa” or “Long live the pope” as he arrived for his weekly appointment with the faithful.
This week’s audience drew an unusually large crowd as more than 130,000 people have flocked to the Vatican following Benedict’s death on Saturday and lined up to pay their respect to the German pope, who is lying in state in the basilica.
Francis is due to preside over Benedict’s funeral on Thursday, an event that is drawing heads of state and royalty despite Benedict’s requests for simplicity and Vatican efforts to keep the first Vatican funeral for an emeritus pope in modern times low-key.
Francis drew applause when he opened his remarks by noting all those who were outside paying tribute to Benedict, whom he called a “great master of catechesis”.
“His acute and gentle thought was not self-referential, but ecclesial, because he always wanted to accompany us in the encounter with Jesus,” Francis said.
Later on Wednesday, Vatican officials were to place Benedict’s body in three coffins — one of cypress wood, one of zinc, and then a second wooden casket — along with a written account of his papacy, the coins minted during his pontificate and his pallium stoles.
The coffins are to be sealed before Thursday’s funeral and burial in the crypt once occupied by the tomb of St John Paul II in the grottos underneath the basilica.
Benedict, who was elected pope in 2005 following John Paul’s death, became the first pope in six centuries years to resign when he announced in 2013 he no longer had the strength to lead the Catholic Church.
After Francis was elected pope, he spent his nearly decade-long retirement in a converted monastery in the Vatican Gardens.
“We can’t forget the example that he gave in his resignation, that he more or less said, ‘Look, I’m not in this for the prestige, the power of the office, I’m in it for service, as Jesus taught’,” recalled Cardinal Timothy Dolan, whom Benedict named archbishop of New York in 2009 and cardinal in 2012.
Thursday’s funeral takes into account the unusual situation in which a reigning pope will preside over a funeral for a retired one, making important changes to the ritual for popes that is highly codified.
Two key prayers, from the diocese of Rome and the Eastern rite churches, that were recited during John Paul’s funeral, for example, will be omitted because Benedict was not pope when he died and because both branches of the Catholic Church still have a reigning pope as their leader.
While the funeral will be novel, it does have some precedent. In 1802, Pope Pius VII celebrated the funeral in St Peter’s of his predecessor, Pius VI, who had died in exile in France in 1799 as a prisoner of Napoleon.
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