Benedict, the first pope to retire in six centuries, died last Dec. 31 at the age of 95 in the Vatican monastery where he spent 10 years as a pope emeritus. He is buried in the grottoes underneath St. Peter’s Basilica.
Speaking at the end of his weekly noon blessing, Francis said the faithful feel “so much love, so much gratitude, so much admiration” for Benedict. He praised the “love and wisdom” with which Benedict guided the church and asked for a round of applause from the pilgrims and tourists gathered in St. Peter’s Square.
Earlier in the day, Benedict’s longtime secretary, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, celebrated a special Mass in the basilica and then participated in an anniversary event to reflect on Benedict’s legacy.
Speaking on the sidelines, Gaenswein acknowledged some of the polemics that surrounded Benedict’s decade-long retirement alongside Francis in the Vatican but said they would be forgotten in favor of the substance of his ministry and his final words: “Lord, I love you.”
History, Gaenswein said, would judge Benedict as a “great theologian, a very simple person and a man of deep faith.”
Francis frequently praised Benedict’s decision to retire as courageous and said he, too, might follow in his footsteps. But now that Benedict has died, Francis has reaffirmed the papacy is generally a job for life, and a consensus has emerged that the unprecedented reality of having two popes living side by side in the Vatican created problems that must be addressed before any future pope decides to step down.
Benedict, a noted conservative theologian who spent a quarter-century as the Vatican’s doctrine chief, remained a point of reference for conservatives and traditionalists, who have only increased their criticism of Francis in the year since he died. Francis, for his part, has appeared now to feel freer to impose his progressive vision of a reformed church now he is no longer under Benedict’s shadow.
Gaenswein, whom Francis exiled to his native Germany soon after the death, recalled that Benedict had only expected to live a few months, maybe a year, after his 2013 resignation. Despite his longer-than-expected retirement, Benedict stayed true to his pledge to pray for the church and for his successor, he said.
“I pray that he will be a saint,” Gaenswein said. “I wish he would be a saint, and I’m convinced he will be a saint.”
Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni also praised Benedict as “a great man of history and a giant of reason, faith and the positive synthesis between the two.” In a statement, she said his spiritual and intellectual legacy would live on even among nonbelievers because of its “profound civic value” and ability to speak to people’s minds and hearts.