Tens of thousands pay last respects to Pope Benedict

People pay their respects at the body of Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Jan. 3, 2023. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Tens of thousands of people streamed through St. Peter’s Basilica to pay their last respects to the late Pope Benedict XVI.
While Rome authorities had predicted between 30,000 and 35,000 visitors a day, some 65,000 people filed past the pope’s body Jan. 2 — the first of three days dedicated to public viewing. More than 25,000 people were counted by midday Jan. 3 with another seven hours left to go and 12 hours of visiting scheduled for Jan. 4.

A damp chill hung in the air at 9 in the morning when the doors of the basilica opened to the public on the first of three days to view the pope’s body. Outdoor souvenir sellers were well-stocked with rosaries Jan. 2, but they seemed to have been caught off guard with a plethora of touristy tchotchkes and few to no images or mementos of the late pope.

A quiet hush covered the vast expanse of St. Peter’s Square each day even though it was filled with thousands of people slowly winding their way around the colonnade into St. Peter’s Basilica.

Special accommodations, however, were made for cardinals, bishops, current and retired Vatican employees, and dignitaries who were allowed access from the back of the basilica and offered a place to sit or kneel on either side of the pope’s body, which was laid out in red vestments on a damask-covered platform.

Before the doors opened to the general public, Cardinal Mauro Gambetti, the archpriest of the basilica and papal vicar for Vatican City State, accompanied Italian President Sergio Mattarella and his entourage and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and other government ministers to pay homage to the late pope. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán paid his respects early Jan. 3.

Matteo Bruni, director of the Vatican press office, said that by early afternoon Jan. 3 some 600 journalists, photographers and camera operators from around the world were accredited to cover the funeral.

The first people in line outside the basilica Jan. 2 was a group of religious sisters from the Philippines, who said they got there at 5:30 a.m.
People kept slowly arriving before sunrise, including a group from Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin, led by Father Richard Kunst of Duluth. The priest told Catholic News Service that he was leading a tour of Rome the day Pope Benedict died.

Being able to see and pay homage to the late pope made the group part of “a really incredible piece of history,” he said.

Father Kunst said he was “a big fan” of Pope Benedict and “not sad at his passing” since the 95-year-old pope had lived a long life and “this is what he lived for — to be able to be with God.”