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Thousands of mourners pack St. Peter's Square for the funeral of Pope Benedict


Today at the Vatican, a living pope, Pope Francis, presided at a requiem mass for his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who died on Saturday at the age of 95. Tens of thousands of people attended this outdoor mass. At the end of the ceremony, the late former pope was buried in a private service at the crypt of St. Peter's Basilica alongside his predecessors. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is on the line from Rome. And, Sylvia, what was it like to be there?

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Well, you know, at the start, it was a very somber mood, primarily because of damp weather and a thick fog that then lifted and the sun came out. Some mourners had arrived at the Vatican during the night, five hours before the funeral was to start. The security was very tight. More than a thousand security personnel were called in for the event, and a no-fly zone was in effect over most of the city.

INSKEEP: Once people got in, what was it like?

POGGIOLI: Well, actually, the ritual resembled funerals of reigning popes. Only a few specific prayers and readings had been eliminated. Pope Francis was wearing crimson vestments that are associated with papal funerals. He arrived in a wheelchair and sat for most of the time because of his knee ailment. And then he concelebrated mass with 125 cardinals, hundreds of bishops, thousands of priests. The ritual was really hardly low-key. Only because the funeral was of a former pope, the Vatican invited only two official delegations, Italy and Germany.

INSKEEP: What did Francis say?

POGGIOLI: Well, he recited Benedict's name several times in Latin in the prayers. In his homily, he didn't say very much about his predecessor. He spoke of the, quote, "wisdom, tenderness and devotion that he bestowed upon us over the years." He uttered Benedict's name only once in the homily, commending his spirit into God's hands.


POPE FRANCIS: (Non-English language spoken).

POGGIOLI: "Benedict, may your joy be complete as you hear his voice now and forever."


POGGIOLI: And then at the end of the mass, before the coffin was carried back into the basilica, there was applause from the crowd. Francis stood up, blessed the coffin and placed his hands on it.

INSKEEP: Sylvia, amid the ritual, there's some political substance here as well, as well as religious substance, because Benedict was seen as a standard-bearer for conservative Catholics. Francis was seen as more liberal on many issues and is met with a lot of conservative resistance. And his predecessor was still around as he was trying to change the direction of the church on certain issues. Will he have more freedom now?

POGGIOLI: It's hard to say right away. Throughout his almost 10 years in retirement, Benedict himself never criticized Francis, and it's said that he resisted efforts by conservatives to challenge his successor. But now, even before Benedict was buried, his longtime secretary, Archbishop Georg Ganswein, in an interview with the German Catholic weekly Tagespost, did not mince words. He said that Francis' decision to sharply curtail use of the old Latin mass, which is very dear to Catholic traditionalists, quote, "broke Benedict's heart." Ganswein said the old mass was a source of spiritual life and nourishment for many saints. It's really unusual to hear such outright criticism so soon.

INSKEEP: So Benedict, of course, made it possible for Francis to be pope by retiring, which other popes in the past had not done. Is this now a precedent? Is this likely to be the normal course?

POGGIOLI: It could be. It could be. There's been a lot of speculation that the Vatican is drawing up specific guidelines on papal retirement. Francis himself has not ruled out the possibility of resigning if he feels he can no longer run the Catholic Church.

INSKEEP: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome. Sylvia, thanks.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.