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Pope Francis Presides Over Funeral for Pope Benedict XVI

VATICAN CITY—

Pope Francis

 presided over the funeral of his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday, in a solemn and grand ceremony, but one that didn’t focus on the deceased’s life or accomplishments.

Francis’s homily was mostly a meditation on the last words of Jesus, from the Gospel reading earlier in the Mass. The pope mentioned Benedict only in a few remarks, recalling “the wisdom, tenderness and devotion that he bestowed upon us over the years.”

The contrast was striking with the effusive eulogy that the future Pope Benedict, then known as Cardinal

Joseph Ratzinger,

delivered for St.

John Paul II

at the last papal funeral, in 2005. Cardinal Ratzinger’s homily on that occasion delved extensively into the Polish pope’s biography as a model for following Jesus. 

By comparison, the brevity of Francis’s tribute to his predecessor on Thursday was likely to disappoint many of Benedict’s admirers, and reflected the current pope’s understated commemorations of his predecessor since the latter died on Dec. 31.

Mourners gathered at the Vatican to pay their last respects to retired Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Francis presided over the funeral of his predecessor at St. Peter’s Basilica on Thursday. Cardinals, political leaders and Catholic worshippers attended a mass to honor the late pontiff. Photo: Fabio Frustaci/Shutterstock

“One does almost get the sense that this is a generic funeral homily that’s been lightly adapted for Benedict XVI, and that may well irritate some of the late pontiff’s most ardent supporters, who will see it as a sign of disrespect,” said John Allen, author of a biography of Pope Benedict. 

Francis’s sparse words about Benedict on Thursday, and in recent days, highlight the fact that Francis has been a strikingly different kind of pontiff to his predecessor. 

Whereas Benedict, who retired in 2013, called for combatting what he called a “dictatorship of relativism” in contemporary society with clarity on moral absolutes and the defining truths of the faith, Francis has been more conciliatory toward secular culture and shown greater leniency on contentious topics such as homosexuality, contraception and divorce. 

The historically unique coexistence of a current and retired pope in the Vatican since 2013 was outwardly cordial but not always comfortable for either man. The differences between them surfaced occasionally on issues that pitted Catholic conservatives against progressives, such as the use of the traditional Latin Mass, or whether to relax rules on priestly celibacy. 

The funeral in St. Peter’s Square is the coda to that unusual cohabitation. Political leaders, cardinals from around the world and other dignitaries were among the thousands present. Pope Benedict’s coffin lay in front of the altar, a volume of the Gospels lying open on top of it.

Nuns in St. Peter’s Square read a Vatican newspaper featuring Pope Benedict XVI on the front page.



Photo:

YARA NARDI/REUTERS

Bishops arrive for the funeral in St. Peter’s Square.



Photo:

fabio frustaci/Shutterstock

Thursday was the first time that a pope has presided over the funeral of his predecessor in the Vatican, according to the Rev. Roberto Regoli, a professor of history at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University. The closest precedent was in 1802, when Pope Pius VII attended the delayed funeral of his predecessor Pope Pius VI, who had died in exile in France in 1799.

Thursday’s proceedings were in a notably lower key than the funeral of St. John Paul II, which drew millions of mourners to Rome. This time, only two official national delegations—from Italy and Benedict’s native Germany—attended. Political leaders from other countries were attending in a private capacity, according to the Vatican. 

This week has been an odd mix of the momentous and the ordinary at the Vatican, reflecting the ambiguous status of the deceased, who spent his last decade wearing papal white and addressed as His Holiness but no longer leading the Catholic Church.

Some 195,000 people, a mix of mourners and tourists, filed by Benedict’s body in the basilica this week. Yet it was largely business as usual in the rest of the Vatican. Pope Francis held meetings with the departing ambassador of South Korea and organizers of a prize to promote human fraternity. He gave his weekly public audience to pilgrims on Wednesday, when he briefly paid tribute to his last predecessor as a “great teacher.” 

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Vatican offices were open on Thursday, though employees were allowed to attend the funeral Mass if their absence didn’t interfere with essential work. The Sistine Chapel was closed to visitors all day, but the rest of the Vatican Museums and the Vatican pharmacy were scheduled to open in the afternoon. 

Some observers expressed discontent at the limited extent of these observances. On Wednesday, Il Sismografo, an influential blog among Vatican employees, decried the lack of “severe and respectful mourning.”

“Where money can be raised, one tries to stay open as long as possible. This is a real scandal. For us Catholics a heartbreaking shame,” the blog’s editors wrote.

Matteo Bruni, director of the Holy See Press Office, declined to comment.

After the funeral, Benedict’s coffin was carried out of the square by 12 attendants in tailcoats, who stopped briefly for a blessing from Pope Francis. The late pope was then buried in the Vatican Grottoes below St. Peter’s Basilica, alongside dozens of other popes. By Benedict’s request, he was placed in the same tomb where his predecessor St. John Paul II lay until 2011, when he was moved into the main basilica.

Write to Francis X. Rocca at francis.rocca@wsj.com

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