Thousands of Catholics began paying their respects Monday to former pope Benedict XVI at St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, at the start of three days of lying-in-state before his funeral.
The queue began to form before dawn in the square in front of the basilica, where Benedict’s body was transferred earlier from the monastery in the Vatican grounds where he died Saturday aged 95.
“I arrived at 6:00 am, it seemed normal to come and pay homage to him after all he did for the church,” said an Italian nun, sister Anna-Maria, who was in the early morning queue.
Benedict led the Catholic Church for eight years before becoming the first pope in six centuries to step down in 2013, citing his declining and physical health.
His successor Pope Francis will lead the funeral on Thursday in St Peter’s Square before his remains are laid to rest in the tombs beneath the Basilica. Benedict, a German theologian, died at the Mater Ecclesiae monastery, which had been his home for the past decade.
The Vatican on Sunday released photos of his corpse, dressed in red papal mourning robes and wearing a gold-edged mitre on his head, on a catafalque in the monastery chapel.
Members of the public will be able to pay their respects at St Peter’s Basilica from 9:00 am (0800 GMT) on Monday and then on Tuesday and Wednesday. Benedict’s shock resignation created the extraordinary situation of having two “men in white” — him and Francis — at the Vatican. His funeral will also break new ground.
Papal deaths usually trigger the calling of a conclave of cardinals to elect a successor, but this time Francis remains in post, and will lead proceedings. Benedict’s funeral will be “solemn but simple”, the Vatican has said, after which he will be buried in the papal tombs under St Peter’s Basilica.
The Vatican has yet to release details of the guest list, beyond saying that it will include delegations from Italy and Benedict’s native Germany.
The last papal funeral, of John Paul II in 2005, drew a million faithful and heads of state from around the world, although Benedict was a more divisive figure.
A brilliant theologian, he alienated many Catholics with his staunch defence of traditional values and as pope struggled to impose his authority on the church as it battled a string of crises, including over clerical sex abuse.
His successor cuts a very different figure, an Argentine Jesuit who is most at home among his flock and has sought to forge a more compassionate church.
Pope Francis paid tribute to Benedict in three New Year’s events at the Vatican over the weekend, “thanking God for the gift of this faithful servant of the Gospel and of the Church”.
Francis, 86, has raised the prospect that he might follow Benedict’s example and step down if he became unable to carry out his duties.
In July, suffering knee problems that have forced him to rely on a wheelchair, he admitted he needed to slow down or think about stepping aside.
Last month, Francis revealed he had signed a resignation letter when he took office should poor health prevent him from carrying out his duties.