VATICAN CITY (Reuters) -Pope Francis presided at the funeral of former Pope Benedict on Thursday, delivering a homily comparing his predecessor to Jesus before tens of thousands of mourners, including some who shouted that he should be made a saint.
Benedict’s death on Saturday brought to an end a decade of the former and present pope living side-by-side in the Vatican and it was the first time in more than 200 years that a pontiff had led the funeral service of his predecessor.
His death was a loss for conservatives who yearned for a return to a more traditional Church symbolised by Benedict, who shocked the world in 2013, by becoming the first pope in 600 years to resign instead of reigning for life.
At the end of the funeral in St. Peter’s Square, some people shouted in Italian “Santo Subito!” (Make him a saint now!). It was the same phrase used at the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005, although by many more people then.
While three of the last five popes have been made saints, only around a third of all pontiffs have been canonised in the Church’s 2,000-year history.
Francis, who sat for most of the service because of a knee ailment, rose at the end as Benedict’s coffin was being carried away. Holding himself up with a cane he touched it while bowing his head in silent prayer.
At 86, Francis, who has been using a wheelchair but has shown no signs of slowing down, with trips planned for Africa and Portugal in the coming months, is a year older now than Benedict was when he retired.
Francis himself has made clear that he would not hesitate to step down some day if his mental or physical health prevented him from carrying out his duties, but Vatican officials always doubted he could do this while Benedict was still alive.
The service started about two hours earlier when, to the sound of tolling bells, 12 pallbearers carried the wooden coffin holding Benedict’s remains out of St. Peter’s Basilica and placed it on the ground before the largest church in Christendom.
The last time a reigning pope had presided over the funeral of a predessor was in 1802, when Pius VII led the service for Pius VI, whose body returned to the Vatican after he died in 1799 in exile.
In his homily read while sitting before the altar, Francis used more than a dozen biblical references and Church writings in which he appeared to compare Benedict to Jesus, including his last words before he died on the cross: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
During the Mass concelebrated by 125 cardinals, 200 bishops and about 3,700 priests, Francis spoke of the “wisdom, tenderness and devotion that he bestowed upon us over the years”.
He mentioned Benedict by name only once, in the last line, saying: “Benedict, faithful friend of the Bridegroom,(Jesus) may your joy be complete as you hear his voice, now and forever!”
Clergy from around the world, a handful of heads of state and thousands of faithful attended the ceremony as the sun slowly broke through the fog.
More than 1,000 Italian security personnel were called up to help safeguard the event, and air space around the tiny Holy See was closed off for the day. Italy ordered that flags around the country be flown at half staff.
Italian police said about 50,000 people were in the square.
‘LEFT HIS MARK’
People from all over the world, many from Benedict’s native Germany, arrived in the early hours to say farewell to Benedict.
“Even though at our age we were just children when he was pope, he left his mark,” Xavier Mora, 24, a Spaniard who is studying for the priesthood in Rome, told Reuters as he approached the square with two other seminarians.
“We have been studying his theology for three years and even though we did not know him personally we have great affection and esteem for him,” he said.
About 200,000 people filed past Benedict’s body while it was lying-in-state for three days until Wednesday evening.
An account of Benedict’s papacy, along with other items, including Vatican coins minted during his reign, was also tucked into the coffin. The account, written in Latin, says he “fought with firmness” against sexual abuse by clergy in the Church.
While many leading figures have praised Benedict since his death, criticism has also been aired, including by victims of clergy sexual abuse, who have accused him of seeking to protect the Church at all costs.
Even though Benedict largely avoided public appearances in subsequent years, he remained a standard-bearer for Catholic conservatives, who felt alienated by reforms ushered in by Francis, including cracking down on the old Latin Mass.
After the funeral ceremony, the coffin was taken back inside the basilica to be encased in zinc before being sealed in a second wooden casket.
At his request, Benedict will be buried later on Thursday in the underground Vatican grottoes in the niche where first Pope John XXIII and then John Paul II were interred before their remains were transferred to more prominent places in the basilica above.