Pope Benedict XVI’s body lying in state at St Peter’s Basilica

Tens of thousands of people are expected to visit the former pope before he is laid to rest on Thursday.

A steady stream of tens of thousands of people filed into St Peter’s Basilica to pay their respects to former Pope Benedict XVI, whose body is lying in the basilica before his funeral later this week.

Doors were swung open to the public shortly after 9am local time (08:00 GMT) on Monday. Some of those in attendance had waited for hours in the dampness before dawn to pay their respects to the late pontiff.

The German theologian, who died on Saturday aged 95 in a secluded Vatican monastery, led the Catholic Church for eight years before becoming the first pope in six centuries to step down in 2013.

Security was tight, with visitors going through several check points before entering the basilica. Many stopped to pray after viewing the body or stayed to attend Mass in side chapels.

Pope Benedict
Faithful queue to pay homage to former Pope Benedict in St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican [Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters]

“I feel like he was a grandfather to us,” Veronica Siegal, 16, a Catholic high school student from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who is in Rome for a programme of religious study, told Reuters news agency in St Peter’s Square after viewing the body.

She said she had read one of Benedict’s books on Jesus for one of her courses.

“I know that he is in a better place because he was a holy man and he led so well,” said her classmate, Molly Foley, also 16, from Atlanta, Georgia. A third girl in the group wore a United States flag on her back.

Vatican police said that 65,000 people had filed past on the first day.

More visitors are expected to visit the Vatican in the coming days, with people permitted to file until Wednesday evening.

Benedict’s body, dressed in red and gold liturgical vestments, has been placed on a simple dais watched over by two Swiss guards. Public viewing will last for 10 hours on Monday, with 12 hours scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday each.

Benedict’s funeral will be held on Thursday in St Peter’s Square and be presided over by Pope Francis, before his remains are laid to rest in the tombs beneath St Peter’s Basilica.

Pope Benedict XVI
Benedict died on Saturday at the age of 95 in the secluded Vatican monastery where he had lived since his shock resignation in 2013 [File: Tony Gentile/Vatican]

‘Solemn but simple funeral planned

Benedict’s shock resignation nearly a decade ago created the extraordinary situation of having two “men in white” – him and Francis – at the Vatican. He cited his frailty, saying he lacked the strength for such a demanding job. His resignation may have ultimately paved the way for Pope Francis and future pontiffs to resign due to poor health.

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. As pope, he 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 Argentinian 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.

Source: News Agencies