VATICAN, January 10, 2023 — When Pope Francis asked for prayers for Benedict XVI at the Wednesday audience of December 28, 2022, I knew I had to prepare for his passing. Benedict was already 95 years old, but it’s hard to truly feel ready for the death of someone who has made such a huge impact on my life. Through his writings and speeches, Benedict fostered and strengthened my faith through many years, so I could not imagine a life without him.

I knew I would have to attend his funeral, when the day would come. I needed to say goodbye to this important person. I needed to pay my respects.

When it was announced that Benedict had passed away on the last day of the year, I made my arrangements and prayed that everything goes well. I flew from Portugal on Wednesday to attend the Thursday service the next morning, January 5.

I arrived at the Vatican colonnade a little before half past 6 am. It was still very dark and cold. But there was already a long queue at that time. A sea of blue habits flowed before me–a group of religious nuns were lining up in front of me. One could hear a murmur of different dialects and languages all around.

I waited about an hour before entering the Square. A young person passed on to me a free copy of a special edition of L’Osservatore Romano and a booklet for the funeral mass. I settled in at a good seat, fronting the Basilica. It was my first time to be in the Vatican during Christmas time, so I was able to sit just by the majestic Christmas tree and the beautiful nativity scene. 

As the sun rose, the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica was still covered in fog. There were many seats around me, but they filled up at every passing minute. The crowd flowed through the security checks and suffused all the empty spaces, until the whole Square was full. Aside from the crowd, there were many delegations, from dignitaries, heads of State, Church leaders, and different faith groups, namely Protestant and Eastern Orthodox. One could smell the anticipation alongside the freshness of the morning.

It was around 8:50 when the body was brought out outside. It was met with the chime of bells, restrained applause, and some solemn music. We then prayed the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Holy Rosary in Latin, for the repose of the late pontiff’s soul. Praying in Latin with the rest of the attendees, I felt the universality of this momentous event, transcending race, ethnicity and nationality. Praying this immortal language was not so much about having a full grasp on it, but reciting it along with the Church worldwide. I also took this opportunity to say all the prayer intentions that people asked me to lay at St. Peter’s feet. 

Though I had a good seat, I was still a bit far. A multitude of priests, dressed in white, unfurled for several rows before me. I couldn’t see everything in my line of sight, but the large screens nearby enabled me to see what was happening at the altar at close range. Being physically there with the rest of the faithful and able to see it in real time made me feel I was truly a part of this unprecedented, historical moment.

As we uttered the last words of the Salve Regina, the fog atop the dome immediately cleared. We now could see the dome, as if it were the sun rising on a new day. And I thought that this had been the “sun” that Benedict saw everyday for several decades, from his time as prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to his reign as pontiff, to his last days as pope emeritus.

At around 9:30, Pope Francis was wheeled into the altar. Cardinals arrived with the pope, and also Patriarchs of the Eastern and Oriental Churches.

“In nomine Patris”: I heard. The Mass began. I followed the booklet. The Mass was in Latin, but the readings (and later, the prayers of the faithful) were read in different languages (Spanish, English, Italian etc.). While this was going on, I felt very moved: a deep sense of communion, not just with everyone present there but with the entire Church watching online (Church Militant), and also the Church Suffering (Souls in Purgatory) and Church Triumphant (Saints in Heaven). 

As someone who was present at the Mass, I thought the homily was beautiful and moving. It was profoundly Christocentric, as Benedict would have wanted it. I was surprised to know that some took issue with it, because that was not the impression for someone who attended the Mass. The homily included many references from then Pope Benedict XVI, and was deeply imbued with his theology. 

It was especially moving when Pope Francis said before ending the homily: “Benedict … may your joy be complete as you hear his (God’s) voice, now and forever!” A long silence of several minutes ensued, with muted bells heard from afar. This was an opportunity for me to just reflect on the gospel reading, the homily, and some of my memories of then Pope Benedict XVI’s words. At that time I got teary-eyed and cried because of how much he has helped me with my faith and with my personal encounter of Jesus Christ in my life. Several flashbacks came to mind: 

I remembered the time I was in Madrid for the 2011 World Youth Day, during the prayer vigil in Cuatro Vientos Aerodrome. The then pope said: “Dear friends, may no adversity paralyze you. Be afraid neither of the world, nor of the future, nor of your weakness. The Lord has allowed you to live in this moment of history so that, by your faith, his name will continue to resound throughout the world”.  After a short but violent storm that lasted for 20 minutes, cutting short his speech, he said: “Thank you for your joy and resistance. Your strength is stronger than the rain. Thank you. The Lord is sending us his blessings with the rain. With this, you’re leading by example.” 

I remembered his teachings on faith, that “Faith gives joy… The great joy comes from the fact that there is this great love, and that is the essential message of faith. You are unswervingly loved.”  [1]

I remembered his teachings on hope: “The Christian knows that history is already saved, that therefore the outcome in the end will be positive…We know that the ‘powers of darkness’ will not prevail over the Church, but we do not know under what conditions that will transpire.” [2]

I remembered his teachings on love, inseparable from truth: “Only in truth does charity shine forth, only in truth can charity be authentically lived. Truth is the light that gives meaning and value to charity. That light is both the light of reason and the light of faith, through which the intellect attains to the natural and supernatural truth of charity: it grasps its meaning as gift, acceptance, and communion. Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love. It falls prey to contingent subjective emotions and opinions, the word “love” is abused and distorted, to the point where it comes to mean the opposite. Truth frees charity from the constraints of an emotionalism that deprives it of relational and social content, and of a fideism that deprives it of human and universal breathing-space. In the truth, charity reflects the personal yet public dimension of faith in the God of the Bible, who is both Agápe and Lógos: Charity and Truth, Love and Word.”  

I remembered his teachings on prioritizing one´s relationship with God: “Man is a relational being. And if his first, fundamental relationship is disturbed—his relationship with God—then nothing else can be truly in order. This is where the priority lies in Jesus’ message and ministry: before all else, he wants to point man toward the essence of his malady, and to show him—if you are not healed there, then however many good things you may find, you are not truly healed.”[3]

And I remembered his final tweet (him, who had been the first pope in this social media platform): “Thank you for your love and support. May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the centre of your lives.”

After the Mass was concluded, the pallbearers brought the casket near to where Pope Francis was standing. On the screen, I saw the two meet for the last time on this side of eternity. I could see the grief and sadness in Pope Francis’s eyes, as he laid his hand on the casket to bid one last farewell to his friend. That too was very moving. 

As the casket disappeared into the Basilica, some people started cheering “Santo Subito” (“saint, now”), asking for the canonization of Pope Benedict XVI. The doors of the Basilica closed. Behind doors, away from my eyes (and the eyes of the rest of the world), there would be a final ceremony and a burial. 

The Basilica would only open in the late afternoon, after my flight back to Portugal. So, I moved with the crowd and left the Square, certain that I had participated in a historical event: the funeral of someone whom I believe will one day become a saint and a Doctor of the Church. 

Paradoxically, the ambience was not heavy, but festive. It was obvious that many shared this idea of mine that Benedict was on his way to heaven. There were drums in the distance, played by some pilgrims from Benedict’s native Germany. They were like wake up calls to return home and bring Benedict’s wisdom and love to this world so removed from God. I know this is what Papa Benny would have wanted.  

Farewell, my dear Papa Ratzi… Papa Benny. May your soul rest in peace. Thank you for your written works and speeches, and all the work you´ve done for Christ and His Church.  Thank you for having been a part of my life and for allowing me to experience this occasion–and what a privilege!– in my life.

I know one day, he could become Doctor of the Church.

References
1. Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium. By Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger with Peter Seewald. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987.

2. The Ratzinger Report. By Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger with Vittorio Messori. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985.

3. Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. By Pope Benedict XVI. New York: Crown, 2012
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