By FRANCES D’EMILIO and GIADA ZAMPANO
VATICAN CITY (AP) — Hours after the death Saturday of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Pope Francis praised his “noble” predecessor and expressed gratitude for his life of faith and prayers, especially those offered in the nearly 10 years since the shy churchman dramatically became the first pope in centuries to retire from the papacy.
In his first public comments about Benedict since the Vatican announced his midmorning death in the monastery where the former pontiff lived out his last years, Francis spoke of his feelings over the passing, adding to tributes that poured in for his predecessor throughout the day.
During his homily at a New Year’s Eve Vespers service in St. Peter’s Basilica, Francis said “thoughts go spontaneously to the very dear Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who this morning left us.”
“With deep feeling, we recall his person, so noble, so gentle,” Francis said. “And we feel in the heart so much gratitude: gratitude to God for having given him to the Church and to the world,” the pope said. “Gratitude to him, for all the good he did, and above all for his witness of faith and of prayer, especially in these last years of withdrawn life.
“Only God knows the value and the strength of his intercession, of his sacrifices offered for the good of the Church,” Francis said, speaking softly.
Earlier, the Vatican said Benedict will have the simple funeral he wanted, when Francis on Thursday morning will celebrate Mass in St. Peter’s Square.
The 95-year-old Benedict died Saturday morning in the Vatican monastery where he had resided since shortly after shocking the world by retiring in 2013. Benedict had been frail for years, and the Vatican three days earlier had said Benedict’s health was worsening to his age.
Within minutes of the announcement, words of praise and fond remembrance were offered by world leaders and religious figures, including the archbishop of Canterbury and Jewish advocates.
But some others, including LGBTQ+ advocates, were restrained in marking the passing of 95-year-old Benedict, Before being elected pontiff in 2005, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger he had long served as the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, ensuring unwavering orthodoxy on issues including homosexual activity, which the Catholic church considers a sin.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said of the funeral that “following the desire of the pope emeritus, (it) will be carried out in the sign of simplicity.”
Benedict spent two more years in papal retirement than in the actual papacy, which had begun in 2005. Benedict died in the austere Vatican monastery where he had resided since shortly after shocking the world by retiring in 2013.
While pope, Benedict was head of state, since the Vatican is an independent city state. But with no such role at the time of his death, the Vatican’s funeral details reflected a scaling back of pomp and protocol.
Only official delegations from Italy and Benedict’s native Germany were invited to the funeral, although a letter from the Vatican’s secretariat of state noted that “authorities from other countries who wish to may participate in a private capacity.”
With Benedict out of the public’s eye for nearly a decade, the turnout of the faithful for the outdoor funeral was also expected to be reduced, certainly compared to the outpouring of faithful for the last funeral of a reigning pope — St. John Paul II in 2005.
Security officials in Rome were estimating that 60,000 people will flock to Thursday’s funeral, Italian state television said. For John Paul, an estimated 300,000 mourners gathered at his funeral.
Starting on Monday morning, the faithful will be able to file by his body in St. Peter’s Basilica, and viewing will also be held on Tuesday and Wednesday.
In a striking contrast to the statements of sorrow over Benedict’s death, hundreds of tourists in St. Peter’s Square rushed to catch a glimpse of Francis, as an aide pushed his wheelchair so he could view the life-sized creche scene and pray silently in front of it, in a Vatican tradition.
Tourists and Romans snapped photos and screamed in delight, and a Vatican band played “Silent Night” as the pope, who has a knee ligament problem, rolled by, and colored lights flashed on a towering Christmas tree.
Francis planned to celebrate New Year’s Day Mass on Sunday in St. Peter’s Basilica. The Catholic church dedicates Jan. 1 to the theme of peace, a subject dear to Francis, who has repeatedly decried Russia’s war in Ukraine and other longer-running conflicts in the world.
As the death announcement came, quietly by email from the Vatican press office, hundreds of tourists were admiring a towering Christmas tree in the square, many unaware that Benedict had died in his secluded residence in the Vatican Gardens.
Benedict “prayed in silence, as one should do,” said Fabrizio Giambrone, a tourist from Sicily who recalled the late pontiff as a ”very good person” who lacked the “charisma” of his predecessor, St. John Paul II, and of his successor, Pope Francis.
Laura Camila Rodriguez, 16, visiting from Bogota, Colombia, with her parents, said she was traveling on a train bound for Rome earlier on Saturday when she learned of Benedict’s death.
“It was a shock, but it’s probably good for him that he can now rest in peace, at his age,” she said. “I think Francis is a good pope, he was a good successor, able to head the Catholic Church.”
While the bells of St. Peter’s Basilica didn’t toll to mark the death announcement, in the somber air in the small Bavarian town where Ratzinger was born in 1927, church bells tolled solemnly at St. Oswald Church in Marktl am Inn, a German town near the Austrian border.
In Krakow, one of Poland’s oldest and biggest church bells that is used to mark events of national significance, the Sigismund Bell, tolled at noon, and a special Mass for Benedict was planned for that city’s Wawel Castle Cathedral in Benedict’s honor later on Saturday.
Poland is a heavily Roman Catholic country where a conservative government is in power. President Andrzej Duda tweeted that Benedict is “one of the most outstanding theologians of the 20th and 21st century.” He called Benedict’s teachings a “guidepost among the many winding and deceptive paths of the contemporary world.”
The American Jewish Committee in a statement from New York praised Benedict for having “continued the path of reconciliation and friendship with world Jewry blazed by his predecessor, John Paul II.” The organization noted that the German-born Catholic church leader had “paid homage in Auschwitz” to the victims of the Holocaust and had made an official visit to Israel.
“He condemned antisemitism as a sin against God and man, and he emphasized the unique relationship between Christianity and Judaism,” the statement said.
Praise for Benedict’s religious devotion came from the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. “In his life and ministry, Pope Benedict XVI directed people to Christ,” the Anglican leader tweeted.
Dubbed “God’s Rottweiller” for his fierce defense of Catholic teaching in the decades that he led the Vatican doctrinal orthodoxy office, Benedict was viewed less enthusiastically by some for his stance on homosexuality and against women’s desire to break with the church’s ban on female priests.
Francis De Bernardo, executive director of the U.S.-based New Ways Ministry, which advocates for LGBTQ+ Catholics noted that Ratzinger in 1986 helped shape a document that called homosexual orientation as ”an objective disorder” and cited his involvement with a 1994 Catechism describing sexual activity between people of the same gender as “acts of grave depravity.”
“Those documents caused — and still cause — grave pastoral harm” to many LGBTQ+ people, De Bernardo said, while noting that his organization was praying for the repose of Benedict’s soul.
Francis has used his papacy to try to set a less judgmental tone against gay Catholics.
While hailing Benedict’s “profound example of humility and willingness to overturn tradition” by resigning, advocates for opening up the priesthood to women expressed dismay over his refusal to embrace their aims.
“His relentless pursuit to stifle the movement for women’s ordination revealed a man unwilling or unable to engage with the urgent needs of the church today,” said Kate McElwee, executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference.
Nicola Zolezzi, 58, on vacation from Genoa, Italy, with his family, said he was sorry to learn of Benedict’s death.
“Maybe he wasn’t that close to the people like Francis or John Paul II, but I think he was a good person and carried out his role well,” he said.
Still, Zolezzi added that “we still wonder what was the real reason behind his decision to leave.”
Benedict had explained that he was relinquishing the papacy because he felt he know longer had the strength to adequately shepherd the Catholic church and its then 1.2 billion members.
Paolo Santalucia in Vatican City, Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland, and Geir Moulson in Berlin, contributed to this story.
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