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Why retired pope Benedict's funeral will be so unusual

Pope Benedict XVI greets the crowd gathered in St Mark's Square while crossing the square on an electric car in 2011 in Venice, Italy.
Marco Secchi
/
Getty Images
Pope Benedict XVI greets the crowd gathered in St Mark's Square while crossing the square on an electric car in 2011 in Venice, Italy.

When retired Pope Benedict XVI is laid to rest on Thursday, it will be an event unprecedented in the modern history of the Catholic Church.

Not only was Benedict the first modern pope to step down, but his funeral will be highly unusual because the sitting pope will preside over the funeral of a former one.

Benedict died on Saturday morning in his residence, the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery, the Vatican announced. The former pope was gravely ill over the past week.

Benedict's funeral mass is scheduled to take place on Thursday in St. Peter's Square. His remains are expected to be on public display in St. Peter's Basilica starting Monday for people to offer their final farewells.

The former pope was elected the 265th pontiff in 2005 at age 78 — becoming the oldest person to be elected since 1730. He served for seven years before becoming the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years, citing his advanced age as a reason he was no longer suited to lead.

A rare spectacle where a sitting pope will preside over the funeral of a former one

The Holy See Press Office announced that Pope Francis will preside over Benedict's funeral — a notable event in the history of the Church, given that it customarily took a pope's passing for a new leader to be chosen.

Despite the unusual circumstances, during Francis' tenure, he has repeatedly paid respects to his predecessor.

"Great in strength and intellectual insight, great in his significant contribution to theology, great in his love for the Church and for human beings, great in his virtue and his religiosity," Francis said in 2014 during the debut of a new statue in honor of Benedict in the Vatican Gardens.

On Wednesday, the Holy See Press Office said Francis visited Benedict and asked the community for prayer regarding his health.

Benedict leaves behind a complicated legacy

Benedict's tenure as pope was marked by both his ambition and humility.

Coming into office, he was determined to strengthen the Catholic Church's core beliefs and denounce modern trends that he believed were undermining Catholicism.

But his pursuit also created rifts with some communities. In 2006, Benedict infuriated Muslims around the world after referencing a historical quote that derided the faith. He later apologized. Benedict also hurt the Church's relations with the Jewish community due to his decision to lift the excommunication of Richard Williamson, a bishop known as a Holocaust denier.

"In the face of scandals and ecclesiastical careerism, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI never ceased to call for conversion, penance and humility," said Andrea Tornielli, the editorial director for the Vatican Dicastery for Communication in a statement.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.
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