VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI the body of, his head resting on a pair of purple pillows, lay in state in St Peter’s Basilica on Monday as tens of thousands lined up to pay their respects to the pope who shocked the world with his retirement a decade ago.
Ahead of the first of three days of viewing, Italian security officials said at least 25,000-30,000 people would turn up on Monday. But by the end of the first day of viewing, some 65,000 people had passed the bier, the Vatican said.
At daybreak, 10 white-gloved papal gentlemen — secular assistants to the pontiffs and papal families — carried the body on a cloth-covered wooden bier after it arrived at the basilica to its resting place in front of the high altar under Bernini’s towering bronze canopy.
A Swiss guard did the honors as Benedict’s body was brought in through a side door after being transferred by van from the chapel to the grounds of the monastery where the frail, 95-year-old former pontiff died Saturday morning.
His longtime secretary, Archbishop Georg Genswein, and a handful of consecrated lay women who served in Benedict’s household followed the van on foot several hundred yards in a silent procession to the basilica. Some of the women reached out to touch the body respectfully.
Before the regular faithful were admitted into the basilica, prayers were said and the bishop of the basilica, Cardinal Mauro Gambetti, sprinkled holy water on the body and a small cloud of incense was released near the beam. Benedict’s hands were clasped, a rosary around his fingers.
Shortly after 9 a.m. (0800 GMT), the doors of the basilica were opened to allow the public, some of whom had waited hours in the pre-dawn humidity, to pay their respects to the late pontiff, who stepped down from the papacy in 2013 – the first pope to do so in 600 years.
Loyal and curious, the audience quickly strode up the center aisle to pass the cloth-draped stretcher after waiting in a line that by mid-morning wound around St. Peter’s Square.
Benedict’s body was dressed in a miter, a pointed bishop’s hat and a red cloak.
Filippo Tuccio, 35, said he came from Venice on an overnight train to see Benedict’s body.
“I wanted to pay tribute to Benedict because he played a pivotal role in my life and education,” Tuccio said.
“When I was young, I participated in World Youth Days,” he said, referring to the jamborees of young believers held periodically and attended by pontiffs. Tuccio added that he studied theology and “his pontificate accompanied me during my university years.”
“He was very important to me: to who I am, to my way of thinking, to my values,” Tuccio continued.
Among those who came to view the basilica was Cardinal Walter Casper, like Benedict, a German theologian. Casper was head of the Vatican’s Office for Christian Unity during Benedict’s papacy.
Benedict left an “important mark” in theology and spirituality, but also in the history of the papacy, with his courage to step down, Casper told The Associated Press.
“This resignation was not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength, of greatness, because he saw that he was no longer up to the challenges of being pope,” Casper said.
Casper, who was among the cardinals who elected Benedict to the papacy in 2005, added that the resignation gave “a more human vision of the papacy: that the pope is a man and depends on his physical and mental powers.”
A public viewing was scheduled for 10 a.m. on Monday and 12 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday before the funeral on Thursday morning, which will be led by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square.
As Benedict had wished, the funeral will be marked by simplicity, the Vatican said when it announced the death on Saturday.
On Monday, workers were setting up an altar in the square for the requiem mass. Rows of chairs were also arranged for the faithful who wanted to attend the funeral. Authorities said they expected about 60,000 to attend the mass.
On Monday, the Vatican confirmed the widely publicized funeral plans. In accordance with his wishes, Benedict’s tomb will be in the crypt of the cave under the basilica, which was last used by Saint John Paul II before the saint’s body was moved upstairs to the main basilica before his beatification in 2011. Vatican spokesman Matteo said Bruni.
On either side of the square’s colonnade, spectators went through the usual security measures required for tourists entering the basilica — passing through metal detectors and checking bags through an X-ray machine.
Marina Ferrante, 62, was among them.
“I think his main legacy is teaching us how to be free,” she said. “He had a special intelligence to say what was essential in his faith, and it was contagious” to other believers. “The thing I thought when he died was that I wish I could be free like him.”
While he ventured that the shy, bookworm German churchman and theologian and the current Argentinian-born pontiff have different temperaments, Ferrante said: “I believe there is a continuity between him and Pope Francis and anyone who understands the true relationship between them and Christ can to see this. “
An American living in Rome called being able to see the body “an incredible experience.” Mountain Butorak, 47, who is originally from Atlanta, said he arrived 90 minutes before dawn.
“I loved Benedict, I loved him as Cardinal (Joseph Ratzinger) when he was elected pope and also after he retired,” Butorak said. “I think he was sort of the grandfather of the people living in the Vatican.”
With a gentle rendition of “Kyrie Eleison” (“Lord, have mercy” in ancient Greek) by an organ and choir in the background, ushers moved the well-wishers at a steady clip down the basilica’s central aisle. Someone left a red rose.
Several VIPs had a moment in public to pay their respects, including Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, the far-right leader who has in the past expressed admiration for Benedict’s conservative leanings.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella also came to view the body. The Vatican said only official delegations from two nations – from Italy and from Benedict’s native Germany – were formally invited to the funeral, as the pontiff emeritus is no longer head of state.
Sister Regina Brandt was among the mourners who came to the square before dawn.
“He’s a German pope and I’m from Germany,” she said. “And I’m here to express my gratitude and love and I want to pray for him and see him.”
Tricia Thomas and Nicole Winfield contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of Pope Benedict XVI: https://apnews.com/hub/pope-benedict-xvi