Eric J. Lyman
VATICAN CITY — A lengthy line of tourists and pilgrims slowly wound through the cool and crisp weather in St. Peter’s Square as word spread that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had died.
“The pope is gone! He’s dead!” one man shouted in Italian, causing a murmur among those nearby. A half dozen nuns waiting in line made the sign of the cross, and several others checked their phones for updates.
But the news — widely anticipated — was mostly taken in stride: police kept operating the security check for entry into St. Peter’s Basilica before everything closed in preparation for Vespers, a traditional evening prayer. Hawkers continued to sell souvenirs and tourists took selfies.
Benedict, who was known as Joseph Ratzinger before he became the church’s 265th pontiff, died at 95. Nearly 10 years ago he became the first pope to step down as pontiff since 1415, which means that his passing will be the first for a pontiff not followed by a conclave in more than six centuries.
His death triggered a period of mourning for the Vatican, and his funeral to be held Thursday will be presided over by Pope Frances and will likely be widely attended by leading and political figures.
While Benedict lacked the broad popularity of John Paul II and Francis, his predecessor and successor, respectively, he was widely admired among devout Catholics.
“He’s with God now, and that’s what’s important,” said Althea Reyes, a nun from the Philippines who was in St. Peter’s Square when she became aware of Benedict’s death. “We have been praying for him to have a peaceful end and he did.”
Mountain Butorac, an Atlanta native organizing Vatican-focused pilgrimages from Rome since 2014, agreed.
“For many of us who loved Pope Benedict it was comforting to know he was close by,” Butorac said. “He was like a papal grandfather who was there just behind the Vatican if we ever needed him.”
Benedict’s death means there is one only one living pope for the first time since 2013 — but that may not be the case for long.
There is widespread speculation that Francis, aged 86, could follow Benedict’s lead and retire. Francis has hinted about such a move since early in his papacy, saying it would like to see retirement for popes “normalized.” In July, after a trip to Canada, Francis said “the door was open” to his retirement one day.
“It’s not a catastrophe,” Francis said. “You can change the pope.”
Back in St. Peter’s Square, a few small groups gathered in prayer after learning of Benedict’s demise. But instead of praying for the pontiff they prayed for others to learn from lessons they said Benedict taught.
“He lived his life and he died with dignity and devotion,” said Giancarlo Pavan, a lay employee of a nearby Catholic church and one of the leaders of a small prayer circle in the square. “This is something we should try to emulate. We cannot be surprised he has died after such a long life of service. But I think we are all poorer without him.”