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The funeral of former Pope Benedict XVI took place in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican

The funeral of former Pope Benedict XVI took place in St. Peter's Square in the Vatican. (5 January 2023)
The funeral of former Pope Benedict XVI took place in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican. (5 January 2023)

ROME — Former Catholic Pope Benedict XVI died in the Vatican on December 29, and on the morning of January 5, Rome time, the current Pope Francis presided over the funeral of Benedict XVI, and leaders of many countries expressed their condolences on the death of Benedict XVI. The death of this influential religious leader is the focus of the global media in the New Year. Chinese authorities have not publicly taken a position on Benedict XVI’s death, and Chinese state media have only briefly reported on him.

A large number of people poured into the Vatican to attend the funeral of Benedict XVI, and there were many seats in St. Peter’s Square, and many people stood on the periphery. Before the funeral, Benedict XVI’s coffin was lifted from St. Peter’s Basilica, according to tradition, the crowd gave a standing ovation, and after the funeral, Benedict XVI’s coffin was carried into St. Peter’s Basilica in applause, and the current Pope Francis presided over the funeral. Francis, due to his advanced age, appeared in a wheelchair, and from the observation of the scene, Francis was in good spirits and spoke.

From January 1 to January 4, the body of Benedict XVI was laid in the Vatican Basilica for public respect, and a large number of people lined up every day to enter. In contrast to China’s low-key response to the death of Benedict XVI, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen appointed former vice president and Catholic Chen Jianren to attend Benedict XVI’s funeral.

On January 4, the remains of Benedict XVI were laid to rest in St. Peter's Basilica.
On January 4, the remains of Benedict XVI were laid to rest in St. Peter’s Basilica.

The funeral of Benedict XVI Catholic clergy

from all over the world attended the funeral, and members of the royal family of Spain, Belgium, and other countries attended the funeral. Because Benedict XVI was born in Germany, originally named Ratzinger, he had long been engaged in theological teaching and research at German universities before serving in the Vatican, German President Steinmeier attended the funeral, and a large number of people in Bavaria, the hometown of Benedict XVI, also attended. Also attending the funeral was Italian President Mattarella. In addition, former Taiwan Vice President Chen Jianren, a Catholic, visited the remains of Benedict XVI after visiting the Vatican and was also present today to attend the funeral. Orthodox, Islamic, Jewish, and other groups were also represented at the funeral.

Many countries in Europe with a strong Catholic tradition, such as Germany, Poland, and France, are now visited in large numbers. People in Bavaria, Germany, dressed in traditional costumes, held a grand procession after the funeral.

In the Vatican for two days of observation, found that there is no sign of Chinese delegation participation, the reporter asked a number of church figures, and they all said that they did not see the Chinese delegation, the Vatican has sporadic Chinese students and tourists visited, but most of them said that they do not believe in religion, only from the news to learn about the death of the pope, lack of understanding of Catholicism, not very clear about the life of the pope, some Chinese students have a negative evaluation of the pope. A Taiwanese tourist said Chinese authorities were silent about the pope’s death, lacked etiquette, and should remain respectful even if they had different views, and hoped Taiwan would expand its international space.

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Analysts believe that the pope died before the New Year, there were no Catholic Catholics in China at the scene, and the funeral was held on January 5, which may not be too late to apply for visas, and it is not ruled out that some Catholics may be restricted from leaving the country by the Chinese authorities.

Hong Kong's emeritus bishop Cardinal Zen attends the former pope's funeral at the Vatican. (5 January 2023)
Hong Kong’s emeritus bishop Cardinal Zen attends the former pope’s funeral at the Vatican. (5 January 2023)

Emeritus Bishop of the Diocese of Hong Kong, Joseph Chan, attended the funeral of Benedict XVI. On January 3, a Hong Kong court allowed Chen to travel to Rome to attend the funeral of Benedict XVI but must return his travel documents to the police upon his return.

China’s official Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the Chinese Catholic Bishops’ Conference only sent a text message stating that “Retired Pope Benedict XVI was summoned by the Lord at the Vatican Mother Monastery at 9:34 on December 31, 2022 (16:34 Beijing time) at the age of 95.” Pray together, asking God for mercy and for the blessings of Pope Benedict XVI in heaven. ”

St. Peter's Basilica on January 1
St. Peter’s Basilica on January 1

Benedict XVI’s Chinese legacy

In a letter to Chinese Catholics in 2007,

Benedict XVI clearly set out the goal of normalizing relations with the People’s Republic of China and was ready to engage in a mutually respectful and constructive dialogue with the Chinese authorities. The letter also demanded that the Chinese authorities respect freedom of belief and pointed out that the Catholic Church, which is independent of the Holy See system, is incompatible with doctrine, namely that China’s official Chinese Catholic Bishops’ Conference is not recognized by the Holy See.

Francesco Sisci, an Italian expert on China and visiting professor at the International University of the Free Social Sciences, said: “Pope Benedict XVI’s letter to the Chinese in 2007 is a very important document that paves the way for an agreement in 2018. There would be no Francis without Benedict, and the Chinese know this very well”.

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Xi Shi pointed out that Benedict XVI’s letter recognized the legitimacy of the Chinese government and encouraged Chinese Catholics to be Chinese citizens, which provided the framework for the appointment of bishops.

Father Bernardo Cervellera, former editor-in-chief of Asia News in Italy, said Benedict XVI’s attempt to communicate and establish ties with China became the Vatican’s principle in a 2007 letter to the Chinese demanding that the Chinese government respect religious freedom.

Massimo Introvigne, an Italian sociologist of religion and editor-in-chief of Bitter Winter, an online magazine focused on religious freedom, sees great value in Benedict XVI’s 2007 letter to Chinese Catholics: to remain open to dialogue with China while sticking to the bottom line on the appointment of bishops, arguing that China’s official patriotic Catholic association violates Catholic doctrine.

Massimo Introvigne believes that there is continuity and discontinuity in the attitudes of Benedict XVI and Francis towards China, both emphasize the importance of dialogue with China, Benedict XVI does not recognize the official Chinese church, Francis differs in this point, but it cannot be understood as a fundamental change in the attitude of the two.

Benedict XVI announced his resignation in 2013 for health reasons, the first time in 600 years that a pope had voluntarily resigned. Compared to his successor, Pope Francis, Benedict XVI was more conservative in his religious attitude. The current Pope Francis has advocated promoting dialogue with China in recent years, expressing his willingness to meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, which has not met so far but has exchanged letters. The Holy See and Chinese authorities signed a secret agreement on the appointment of bishops in 2018, which was renewed twice in 2020 and 2022.

The contents of the Vatican’s secret agreement with China, which has no diplomatic relations with China, are not yet known, and the agreement is considered the first step in the thaw of bilateral relations. The agreement has been criticized for its lack of transparency and for being seen as making too many concessions by the Holy See to Chinese authorities. Recently, the Vatican has made a rare accusation that China has violated the agreement, while Chinese authorities say they do not understand the specific issues.

The funeral of Benedict XVI took place on the morning of January 5 in St. Peter's Square in the Vatican.
The funeral of Benedict XVI took place on the morning of January 5 in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican.

China snubbed the Holy See?

China has not taken a public stance on the death of Benedict XVI, and state media have taken a cold approach, similar to what happened before the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005. At the time, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao expressed condolences on the death of John Paul II, and state media sent only a few brief messages that did not describe the life of John Paul II.

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Francesco Sisci, in response to VOA’s question, said: “When Pope John Paul II died, China expressed its condolences and even sent a delegation to the funeral, but it was done quietly. I guess it’s the same this time.

Father Benard recalled attending the funeral of John Paul II in 2005 when President George W. Bush and Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian attended the funeral, and he did not see the Chinese delegation at the funeral, and if there was unless it was unofficial.

Chen Shui-bian’s visit to the Vatican for John Paul II’s funeral sparked discontent in China, with the Chinese Foreign Ministry claiming that Chen used his visit to Rome to “promote Taiwan independence,” and that China’s official Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association did not send a representative to the funeral for this reason.

Massimo Intervigne believes that the series of events from the Vatican’s accusation that China violated secret agreements to China’s failure to publicly respond to the death of Benedict XVI shows that the Chinese authorities are now ignoring the Vatican’s current attitude and showing that the Chinese authorities are satisfied with the status quo. Massimo Interovigi mentioned that the official church of China held a national representative conference in 2022, at which the issue of the Pope and the Vatican renewing the agreement with China was completely omitted, showing that the Chinese authorities do not care about relations with the Vatican at all.

Massimo Intervigne said that the Chinese authorities were satisfied with the agreement with the Vatican in 2018, which was renewed twice in 2020 and 2022, which means that the continuation of the practice before 2018 by the Chinese authorities has been recognized by the Vatican. The Vatican may interpret the agreement differently than China, but China has its own interpretation, and China does not need to move closer to the Vatican in the future.

Massimo Intervigne: “The idea [of the CCP] is not to criticize, not to praise, more or less to ignore the existence of Rome and the Vatican. I think so far, this is the CCP’s preference unless the Pope mentions peace, which seems to be in line with the CCP’s agenda. The Vatican has accepted Chinese Catholics into the Patriotic Church, and if church numbers decline, this is not a big problem for the CCP, and even they are happy to see it. I believe that the current attitude is largely to ignore the Holy See. ”

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