VATICAN CITY (AP) — The body of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, his head resting on a pair of crimson pillows, was laid out in St. Peter’s Basilica Monday as tens of thousands queued to pay tribute to the pope who shocked the world a decade ago in the retirement.
On the eve of the first of three days of sightseeing, Italian security officials had said at least 25,000 to 30,000 people would show up on Monday. But by afternoon, about six hours after the basilica’s doors opened to the public, Vatican police estimated that about 40,000 of the body had been turned in, the Holy See said.
As daylight broke, 10 white-gloved papal gentlemen — lay assistants to popes and papal households — carried the body on a cloth-covered wooden stretcher to its resting place in front of the main altar under Bernini’s towering bronze canopy upon its arrival in the basilica.
A Swiss Guard saluted as Benedict’s body was brought in through a side door, having been brought in a van from the chapel on the monastery grounds, where the increasingly frail, 95-year-old former pope died on Saturday morning.
His longtime secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, and a handful of consecrated lay women who served in Benedict’s household followed the van on foot a few hundred yards in a silent procession to the basilica. Some of the women reached out to touch the body with respect.
Before the ordinary faithful were admitted into the basilica, prayers were said and the archpriest of the basilica, Cardinal Mauro Gambetti, sprinkled the body with holy water and a small cloud of incense was released near the bier. Benedikt’s hands were clasped, a rosary around his fingers.
Just after 9 a.m. (0800 GMT) the doors of the Basilica were swung open to allow the public, some of whom had waited for hours in the pre-dawn dampness, to pay their respects to the late Pope, who was retiring from the papacy 2013 – the first pope in 600 years.
Loyal and curious, the audience strode briskly up the aisle to pass the bier with its draped fabrics, after queuing in a line that snaked around St. Peter’s Square mid-morning.
Benedict’s body was dressed in a miter, a bishop’s pointed headgear, and a red cloak.
Filippo Tuccio, 35, said he came on an overnight train from Venice to see Benedict’s body.
“I wanted to pay my respects to Benedict because he played a key role in my life and education,” Tuccio said.
“When I was young I attended World Youth Days,” he said, referring to the Jamborees of young believers that were held regularly and attended by popes. Tuccio added that he studied theology and “his pontificate accompanied me throughout my student days.”
“He was very important to me: to who I am, to my way of thinking, to my values,” Tuccio continued.
Cardinal Walter Kasper was among the visitors to the basilica tour, as was Benedikt, a German theologian. Kasper served as head of the Vatican’s Office of 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 aside, Kasper 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 papal existence,” said Kasper.
Kasper, who was among the cardinals who elected Benedict pope in 2005, added that the resignation “brought a more human vision to the papacy: that the pope is a man and needs his physical and mental powers.”
The public viewing was scheduled for 10 hours on Monday and 12 hours each on Tuesday and Wednesday before Thursday morning’s funeral in St. Peter’s Square, which will be presided over by Pope Francis.
As desired by Benedict, the funeral will be characterized by simplicity, the Vatican announced when the death was announced on Saturday.
Workers erected an altar for the funeral mass in the square on Monday. In addition, rows of chairs have been arranged for the faithful who wish to attend the funeral. Authorities said they expected about 60,000 to come to the fair.
On Monday, the Vatican confirmed widespread burial plans. According to his wishes, Benedict’s tomb will lie in the crypt of the grotto beneath the basilica, which was last used by John Paul II before the saint’s body was transferred upstairs to the main basilica before his beatification in 2011, Vatican spokesman Matteo said Bruni.
On two sides of the piazza’s colonnade, spectators went through the usual security measures required for tourists entering the basilica – through metal detectors and candling bags through an X-ray machine.
Among them Marina Ferrante, 62.
“I think his most important legacy was teaching us how to be free,” she said. “He had a special intelligence in saying the gist of his faith and it was contagious” to other believers. “When he died, I thought I’d like to be as free as he was.”
While daring that the shy German churchman and theologian and the current Argentine-born pope have different temperaments, Ferrante said: “I believe there is a continuity between him and Pope Francis, and anyone who wants to see the true relationship between them and Christ.” understands, can see that. ”
An American living in Rome called the opportunity to see the body “an amazing experience”. Mountain Butorac, 47, who is originally from Atlanta, said he arrived 90 minutes before dawn.
“I loved Benedict, I loved him as a cardinal (Joseph Ratzinger), when he was elected pope and even after his retirement,” Butorac said. “I think he was sort of the grandfather of the people who lived in the Vatican.”
With a soft rendition of “Kyrie Eleison” (“Lord have mercy” in Ancient Greek) played in the background by an organ and choir, the ushers ushered the well-wishers at a steady pace down the basilica’s central nave. Someone left a red rose.
Some VIPs had a moment to pay their respects to the general public, including Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, the far-right leader who has in the past expressed his admiration for Benedict’s conservative leanings.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella also came to see the body. The Vatican said only the official delegations of two nations – from Italy and from Benedict’s native Germany – were officially invited to the funeral since the pope emeritus was no longer head of state.
Sister Regina Brand 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.”
Trisha Thomas and Nicole Winfield contributed to this report.
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