By Hannah Brockhaus and Courtney Mares
Pope Francis gave thanks for the good works and sacrifices of Benedict XVI, hours after the pope emeritus’ death on Saturday at the age of 95.
“The thought goes spontaneously to the dearly beloved Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who left us this morning. With emotion we remember his person, so noble, so kind,” Pope Francis said at a prayer vigil in St. Peter’s Basilica on Dec. 31.
In his first public comments since the pope emeritus’ death, Francis said: “We feel in our hearts so much gratitude: gratitude to God for having given him to the Church and to the world; gratitude to him, for all the good he accomplished, and especially for his witness of faith and prayer, especially in these last years of his retired life.”
“Only God knows the value and strength of his intercession, of his sacrifices offered for the good of the Church,” he said.
Pope Francis addressed the news of Benedict’s death during a first Vespers liturgy for the vigil of the Jan. 1 Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.
Before the start of the liturgy, Catholics in attendance prayed a rosary for the repose of the soul of Benedict XVI.
Benedict’s death, at the age of 95, was announced in Rome on Dec. 31. His body will lie in state in St. Peter’s Basilica from the morning of Monday, Jan. 2, 2023.
Pope Francis will preside over the pope emeritus’ funeral Mass in St. Peter’s Square at 9:30 a.m. on Jan. 5, 2023. He will be buried in the Vatican crypt under St. Peter’s Basilica.
First Vespers was prayed at the Vatican in anticipation of the Jan. 1 Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. The prayer service also included the singing of the “Te Deum,” a Latin hymn of thanksgiving from the early Church.
Pope Francis, who turned 86 earlier this month, arrived at the basilica in a wheelchair before presiding over the liturgy and delivering a homily.
Benedict XVI was remembered in the vigil’s prayer intentions.
Members of the Roman Curia and the diplomatic corps accredited to the Vatican were also present inside the basilica, where an estimated 8,000 people gathered in prayer on the last day of 2022.
It is Pope Francis’ custom to visit the Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square following first Vespers on New Year’s Eve. Last year, his visit was canceled to prevent crowds from gathering during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In his homily, Pope Francis reflected on God being born “of a woman,” which was made possible through Mary’s “yes” to the divine plan for Jesus’ birth.
“Let us not take the mystery of divine motherhood for granted,” he said. “Let us be amazed by the choice of God, who could have appeared in the world in a thousand ways showing his power, and instead wanted to be conceived in full freedom in Mary’s womb, wanted to be formed for nine months like any child, and finally be born of her, born as a woman.”
“Let us not pass over this quickly, let us stop to contemplate and meditate on it, for here is an essential feature of the mystery of salvation,” the pope said.
The prayer service concluded with the singing of the Christmas hymn “Adeste Fideles.”