Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's body, his head resting on a pair of crimson pillows, lay in state in St. Peter’s Basilica on Monday as thousands of people filed by to pay tribute to the pontiff who shocked the world by retiring a decade ago.
As daylight broke, 10 white-gloved Papal Gentlemen — lay assistants to pontiffs and papal households — carried the body on a cloth-covered wooden stretcher up the center aisle of the mammoth basilica to its resting place in front of the main altar under Bernini’s towering bronze canopy.
A Swiss Guard saluted as the body was brought in via a side door after Benedict’s remains, placed in a van, had been transferred from the chapel of the monastery grounds where the increasingly frail, 95-year-old former pontiff had passed away on Saturday morning.
His longtime secretary, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, and a handful of consecrated laywomen who served in Benedict’s household, followed the van by foot in a silent procession toward the basilica.
Just after 9 a.m. (3 a.m. ET), the doors of the basilica were swung open so the public, some who had waited for hours in the dampness before dawn, could pay their respects to the late pontiff, who retired from the papacy in 2013 to become the first pope to do so in 600 years.
Faithful and curious, the public strode briskly up the center aisle to pass by the bier after waiting in a line that by midmorning snaked around St. Peter’s Square.
Filippo Tuccio, 35, came from Venice on an overnight train to view Benedict’s body.
“I wanted to pay homage to Benedict because he had a key role in my life and my education. I arrived here at around 7:30, after leaving Venice last night,” Tuccio said.
“When I was young I participated in World Youth Days,’’ said the pilgrim, referring to the jamborees of young faithful held periodically and attended by pontiffs. Tuccio added that he had studied theology, and “his pontificate accompanied me during my university years.”
“He was very important for me: for what I am, my way of thinking, my values. This is why I wanted to say goodbye today.”
Public viewing lasts for 10 hours on Monday in St. Peter’s Basilica. Twelve hours of viewing are scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday before Thursday morning’s funeral, which will be led by Pope Francis, at St. Peter’s Square.
Security officials expected at least 25,000 people to pass by the body on the first day of viewing.
Marina Ferrante, 62, was among them. The Roman arrived an hour before the doors were opened, and she grew emotional when she explained why she came.
“I think his main legacy was teaching us how to be free,” she said. “He had a special intelligence in saying what was essential in his faith and that was contagious” for other faithful. “The thing I thought when he died was that I would like to be as free as he was.”
While venturing that the shy, bookworm German churchman and theologian and the current Argentine-born pontiff had different temperaments, “I believe there’s a continuity between him and Pope Francis and whoever understands the real relationship between them and Christ can see that,” Ferrante said.