Pope Francis leads final farewell to Benedict before thousands

Pope Francis led the funeral of his predecessor Benedict XVI on Thursday in front of tens of thousands of mourners in St Peter's Square, an event unprecedented in modern times.

Scarlet-clad cardinals, dignitaries and thousands of priests and nuns from around the world gathered to say goodbye to the German theologian, who stunned the Catholic church in 2013 by becoming the first pontiff in six centuries to resign.

For the first time in modern history, the papal funeral was led by a sitting pope, Francis, who delivered the homily in Italian as part of a multi-lingual service with a Latin mass.

"Benedict... may your joy be complete as you hear his (God's) voice, now and forever!" the pontiff said in tribute to his predecessor, who died on Saturday aged 95.

At the end of the service, Francis made the sign of the cross over Benedict's simple cypress wood coffin and bowed his head, before pallbearers carried it into St Peter's Basilica.

Benedict will be interred in a tomb in the Vatican Grottoes beneath the basilica where John Paul II's body lay before being moved for his beatification in 2011.

The Polish pontiff was made a saint in 2014.

In a private ceremony after Thursday's funeral, Benedict's coffin was tied with a red ribbon and placed in a zinc coffin, before being sealed and put inside a wood casket, according to the Vatican.

Coins and medals minted during his papacy and a written text describing his pontificate, sealed in a metal cylinder, were placed alongside his body.

- Paying homage -

Born Joseph Ratzinger, the ex-pope had not been a head of state for a decade, but world leaders including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni were among those in attendance.

Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen, 90, also attended after being granted permission by a court to travel following his arrest last year under the city's national security law.

An estimated 50,000 people were in St Peter's Square for the funeral, according to police, many of them having queued up since dawn in thick fog to bid farewell.

"Benedict is a bit like my father, so I had to pay homage to him," said Cristina Grisanti, a 59-year-old from Milan, who hailed the former pope's "purity, his candour, his mildness".

An estimated 195,000 people had already paid their respects earlier in the week when the body lay in state at the basilica.

Many Germans -- some in lederhosen -- were in the crowd on Thursday as church bells rang out across Benedict's native Germany at the funeral's culmination.

"We owe him so much. We want to show that we stand behind him," said Benedikt Rothweiler, 34, who came from Aachen with his family.

"He always accepted everything the way God wants it. This is a good example for us humans."

- Two popes -

Benedict was a brilliant theologian but a divisive figure who alienated many Catholics with his staunch defence of conservative doctrine on issues such as abortion.

His eight years as head of the worldwide Catholic Church was also marked by crises, from in-fighting within the Vatican to the global scandal of clerical sex abuse and its cover-up.

When he quit, Benedict said he no longer had the "strength of mind and body" necessary for the task, retiring to a quiet life in a monastery in the Vatican gardens.

His death brought an end to an unprecedented situation of having two "men in white" -- he and Francis -- living in the tiny city state.

He and Francis, an Argentine Jesuit, were said to get on well, but Benedict's later interventions meant he stayed a standard-bearer for conservative Catholics who did not like his successor's more liberal stance.

The last time a pope presided over the funeral of his predecessor was in 1802, when Pius VII led the ceremony for Pius VI.

Pius VI died in 1799 in exile, a prisoner of France, and was buried in Valence. His successor had his remains exhumed and brought back for a papal funeral at St Peter's.

- European royals -

Beyond St Peter's, many of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics had been expected to follow the funeral proceedings on television and the radio.

In the majority Catholic Philippines, churches held requiem masses for the former pontiff, including at Malolos Cathedral near the capital Manila.

"This is an unexplainable feeling to witness this," said Cherry Castro, 67.

Portugal declared a national day of mourning on Thursday, while in Italy, flags were flown at half-mast on public buildings.

The only official delegations were from Germany and Italy.

But other dignitaries, including Belgian and Spanish royals, the presidents of Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Hungary, Slovenia and Togo, and the premiers of the Czech Republic, Gabon and Slovakia among others attended in a personal capacity.

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