Hundreds of thousands pay last respects to Pope Benedict XVI at St. Peter’s

January 10, 2023

People pay their respects at the body of Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Jan. 3, 2023. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — A quiet hush covered the vast expanse of St. Peter’s Square even though it was filled with thousands of people slowly winding their way around the colonnade into St. Peter’s Basilica to pay their last respects to the late Pope Benedict XVI.

Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, Archbishop of Galveston-Houston, was one of the many who visited St. Peter’s Basilica to pray and honor the late pope.

Outdoor souvenir sellers were well-stocked with rosaries Jan. 2, but they seemed to have been caught off guard with a plethora of touristy tchotchkes and few to no images or mementos of the late pope. A damp chill hung in the air at nine in the morning when the doors of the basilica opened to the public on the first of three days to view the pope’s body.

Special accommodations, however, were made for officials of the Roman Curia, Vatican staff and dignitaries who were allowed access from the back of the basilica and offered a place to sit or kneel on either side of the pope’s body, which was laid out in red vestments on a damask-covered platform.

Before the doors opened to the general public, Mauro Cardinal Gambetti, the archpriest of the basilica and papal vicar for Vatican City State, accompanied Italian President Sergio Mattarella and his entourage and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and other government ministers to pay homage to the late pope.

The first in line outside the basilica was a group of religious sisters from the Philippines, who said they got there at 5:30 a.m.

People kept slowly arriving before sunrise, including a group from Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin, led by Father Richard Kunst of Duluth. The priest told Catholic News Service (CNS) that he was leading a tour of Rome the day Pope Benedict XVI died.

Father Kunst said he was “a big fan” of Pope Benedict and “not sad at his passing” since the 95-year-old pope had lived a long life and “this is what he lived for — to be able to be with God.”

Father Matthew Schmitz was with a group of 90 young people from ECYD, an international Catholic youth organization affiliated with Regnum Christi.

“We were praying while we were waiting, we prayed the Rosary” and went inside the basilica in silence, he told CNS.

He said he was in Rome for his studies when Pope Benedict was elected in 2005, and “I met him once after an Easter Mass,” which means “I’m still kind of processing” the fact that he found himself back in Rome when the pope died.

Ana Sofia de Luna, who is with ECYD and from Mexico, said, “It’s very sad that Pope Benedict died, but being here and seeing his body was a great blessing, to be able to ask for grace and seeing his body there was very impactful.”

Father Justin Kizewski happened to be traveling with a group of 45 seminarians and nine priests on pilgrimage from Madison, Wisconsin.
He said, “I’ve been privileged to accompany him through his pontificate: I was here in the square when he was elected, I was here in the square when he resigned, and now here when he’s lying in state.”

“When we read his writings, heard him preach, or saw him celebrate the Mass, we really saw a man that cares for his sheep and gives us an example of how to care for ours,” he said.

Sugey Viramontes from Mexico told CNS that “without a doubt, his example of simplicity, and above all how he spent his last few years, always in prayer, is a great example for us young people.”

Inside the basilica, staff and security kept visitors moving smoothly and quickly, letting people stop before the pope’s remains long enough to make the sign of the cross and take a picture or two before being asked quietly to “Please, move along.”

However, many took advantage of the large nooks and niches in the basilica to press up against a wall or barricade and linger just a little while longer.

The Vatican said some 200,000 people had visited St. Peter’s Basilica in three days, where the late pope’s body had been lying in repose since the morning of Jan. 2.

Pope Benedict’s mortal remains lied in repose in the basilica for three days until the late evening of Jan. 4; Pope Francis presided over the funeral Mass Jan. 5 in St. Peter’s Square.

The Vatican said Pope Benedict had wished his funeral to be simple, emphasizing it would be “solemn, but sober.” Some traditions connected with the death and burial of a pope will be followed, such as three objects being deposited in the pope’s casket before he is buried: his palliums, coins and medals minted during his pontificate, and a “rogito” or scroll that summarizes in Latin the highlights of his papacy.
After public viewing of his body ends the evening of Jan. 4, Pope Benedict was placed in a traditional cypress casket, following a traditional ritual, the Vatican said.

Before the funeral, the casket was carried into St. Peter’s Square, where the faithful joined in the recitation of the Rosary before the Mass.
After the funeral, again following tradition, the casket was sealed and wrapped with ribbons, then placed inside a zinc casket that will be soldered and sealed, and then placed inside a casket made of wood.

The moment of his burial in the grotto of St. Peter’s Basilica, where other popes are buried, was private.