Applause erupted across the vast cobblestone esplanade, which was shrouded in mist, in a show of respect for Benedict, a hero of Roman Catholic conservatives who shocked the world when he quit nearly a decade ago.
Crowds of people began arriving in the Vatican area as early as 4 a.m. (0300 GMT), five and a half hours before the funeral to be presided over by his successor, Pope Francis.
The two-hour service was preceded by recitations of prayers.
More than 1,000 Italian security personnel were called in to help protect the event, and the airspace around the tiny Holy See was closed for the day. Italy has ordered flags across the country to be flown at half-mast.
Among those present at the funeral were Germans in traditional Bavarian attire carrying flags and banners from the region of Germany where Benedict was born.
Benedict, the world-renowned theologian, died on Saturday at 95 in a monastery in the Vatican gardens where he moved after becoming the first pontiff in 600 years to step down, paving the way for the election of Pope Francis, who s turned out to be more reformist. , practical leader.
“Even though at our age we were only children when he was pope, he left his mark,” Xavier Mora24, a Spaniard who is studying for the priesthood in Rome, told Reuters as he approached the square with two other seminarians.
“We have been studying his theology for three years and even though we didn’t know him personally, we have a lot of affection and esteem for him,” he said.
Pretrials were completed Wednesday evening and the body was placed in a plain cypress wood coffin ready for the funeral. A one-page account of Benedict XVI’s papacy, as well as other items, including Vatican coins minted during his reign, were also hidden in the coffin.
The three-page account of his life and papacy, written in Latin, says he “struggled steadfastly” against clergy sex abuse in the Church.
While many prominent figures have praised Benedict since his death, criticism has also been aired, including by victims of clergy sex abuse, who have accused him of seeking to protect the Church at all costs.
After the funeral ceremony, the coffin will be brought back inside the basilica and encased in zinc before being sealed in a second wooden coffin.
Because Benedict XVI was no longer head of state when he died, only two countries, Italy and his native Germany, sent official delegations on Thursday.
Other leaders, including the King and Queen of Belgium, and around 13 Heads of State or Government, will attend in their private capacity. Most nations were represented by their ambassadors to the Holy See.
A far cry from the last papal funeral in 2005, when dozens of kings, presidents and prime ministers joined more than a million people who took to the streets of the Vatican to pay their respects to Benedict’s charismatic predecessor, John Paul II.
Benedict was still likely to reign in the shadow of Jean-Paul, who was credited with helping to end the Cold War. But his time in charge was to some extent spent trying to overcome issues that the Church had ignored or covered up in previous decades, including rampant sexual abuse by clerics.
Benedict himself admitted he was a weak administrator, and after eight years on the job he stunned the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics in 2013 by stepping down, saying he was no longer strong enough to lead. the Church because of his “advanced age”.
Francis himself has made it clear that he would not hesitate to resign one day if his mental or physical health prevents him from carrying out his duties, but Vatican officials have always doubted that he can do so as long as Benedict was still alive.
Even though Benedict largely avoided public appearances in later years, he remained a standard bearer for conservative Catholics, who felt alienated by the reforms introduced by Francis, including the crackdown on the Old Latin Mass.
Over the past three days, nearly 200,000 people have marched past Benedict’s body dressed in a miter and red vestments, his hands wrapped in a rosary, which was placed over a beer in St. Peter’s Basilica without no papal insignia.
At his request, Benedict will be buried in the Vatican’s underground caves in the niche where Pope John XXIII and then John Paul II were buried before their remains were moved to more important locations in the basilica above.