So began a novel week in which a retired pope — secluded for a decade until his death on Saturday — became the center of the Catholic world one final time.
For all those who came to pay tribute, he was positioned just in front of the main altar, under the towering golden cupola. Two Swiss Guards stood watch. In the opening public viewing hours — of the 34 total that will lead to his funeral on Thursday — there were nuns holding rosaries, people clasping hands and pilgrims who’d traveled hours to be there.
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“A giant of the faith,” said Andrea Ascani, 47, who’d driven with his family from the Umbrian hill town of Assisi.
But it was also clear, from seeing the proceedings on Monday, that there’s a profound difference between dying as pope and dying as an ex-pope.
When John Paul II lay in state, Rome hotels booked up, and the wait to see the body threatened to grow so long — approaching 24 hours, according to reports from the time — that officials closed down the line.
In Benedict’s case, the wait was an hour. The crowds around the basilica were larger than normal, but were contained near the main piazza. According to the Vatican, between 9 am and 2 pm, some 40,000 people filed by.
And most notably, there was little overt emotion. Some people passing through were just tourists who wanted to see the basilica. Many held their phones aloft while approaching the catafalque. Security kept the line moving briskly — “Move ahead! Move ahead!” they told crowds — making it hard for anyone who wanted an intimate moment.
John Pauls decline had gripped Catholic faithful because it was so public and painful — just one part of the reason his death provoked such an outpouring. Even days before he died, the 84-year-old pope had appeared at a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square, struggling to pronounce a coherent syllable.
But in Benedict’s case, the act of aging happened mostly behind the scenes. Pope Francis replaced him as Catholicism’s spiritual authority, and in retirement Benedict made his mark only sparingly — in occasional writings or appearances in Vatican photos. Some conservative Catholics looked to him as a regular inspiration. But his daily relevance for many in the faith had waned.
“Now he’s yesterday’s pope,” said Gerard O’Connell, a Vatican correspondent who has covered the church for more than three decades, and who has written an account of the conclave that elected Francis.
O’Connell said that Benedict had received an emotional send-off — but it was in 2013, when he abdicated. More than 100,000 people gathered for his final address, some in tears, as he talked about loving the church and having “the courage to make difficult, painful decisions.” The next day, he was whisked away by helicopter to his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, no longer the pope.
“I remember very well the feeling of mourning, of emotion,” O’Connell said.
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Benedict had earned a core place in modern Catholicism even before becoming pope, first with his theological research, then with his two decades as a trusted lieutenant to John Paul. After eight years as pontiff, he became the first pope to abdicate in 600 years.
But some people filing in line Monday noted that Benedict, for all his stature in the faith, looked so tiny in death. Part of it was the scale of the basilica. Even before his health faltered, he’d stood just 5-foot-7. In recent years, he’d been increasingly stooped.
“He looked so fragile,” said Markus Lautenschlager, a Protestant pastor from Germany, visiting Rome with his family, who waited in line to pay tribute.
Lying in state, his hands were folded at the waist, holding rosary beads. His skin had a grayish hue.
“It was a little morbid,” said Denisa Manojlovic, visiting Rome from Croatia.
Pope Francis last Wednesday indicated that his predecessor was in failing health and asked for prayers. Francis went to visit Benedict’s body soon after his death, and will preside over the funeral Mass on Thursday.
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Authorities expect a crowd of about 60,000 for the funeral. After that, Benedict will be buried in the grottoes in the bowels of St. Peter’s, which holds the remains of 91 popes. The funeral won’t have quite the pomp of those given to earlier popes, a mark of Benedict’s status as pope emeritus. Only two delegations, from Italy and Germany, are attending.
Even Monday, Benedict did not have all the markings of a pontiff. The Vatican’s news site noted that Benedict was lying in state without a pallium, a vestment that would not be used for a “retired prelate.”
For almost a decade, Benedict had lived at a monastery inside the Vatican walls; that’s also where he died. His body was transferred by van to the basilica early Monday morning, then carried into the basilica by 10 white-gloved attendants on a platform covered in red fabric. Cardinal Mauro Gambetti, the basilica’s archpriest, prayed that the “deceased pope emeritus” might be welcomed into the “eternal abode.”
Before the public opening, Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni paid their respects.