Pope's tribute to predecessor 'refined and profound,' says Benedict aide

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- When the coffin containing the remains of Pope Benedict XVI was carried into St. Peter's Square, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi was among the 3,700 priests who concelebrated the funeral Mass Jan. 5.

"You see much better from there," down in St. Peter's Square, he told Catholic News Service the evening after the funeral. "Up on the stage, you are behind all the bishops who wear their miters, and it blocks the view."

As director of the Vatican press office for seven years of Pope Benedict's nearly eight-year pontificate, Father Lombardi had a front row seat to the major achievements of the late pope's pontificate. Since 2016 he has been president of the board of directors of the Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI Vatican Foundation, which promotes the theology of the late pope.

While Pope Francis did not explicitly mention them in his homily, Father Lombardi told CNS that the pope's message was a "very refined and profound" tribute to his predecessor that respected the liturgy of a funeral Mass.

Catholic liturgical rules tell celebrants, "careful, the homily is not a eulogy of a person, the homily is a comment on the Scripture reading," he said.

Although Pope Francis only referred to Pope Benedict by name once, Father Lombardi noted that he directly quoted his predecessor three times in the homily.

"There are attitudes, words and expressions from Benedict that Francis takes, and, in a way, makes his own on this occasion to talk about (Benedict's) spiritual vision and his service," he said. "It made us pray for Benedict in the spirit of Benedict."

Many gathered in Rome for the funeral were left wanting more explicit recognition of the late pope's life and contributions to the church. As his coffin was carried toward St. Peter's Basilica at the end of Mass, pilgrims began chanting "Santo subito!" (Sainthood now!), a common rallying cry after the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005. Several pilgrims also carried banners calling for Pope Benedict to be declared a doctor of the church.

"This display of appreciation, of spiritual closeness, gratitude and love seems very positive to me right now," Father Lombardi told CNS, "but the tradition of the church is to have a certain calm, a certain prudence" in advancing causes for canonization.

Church norms state that the petition to open a cause for sainthood can be presented only five years after the candidate's death. Pope Benedict waived the waiting period in the case of his predecessor and allowed for Pope John Paul's case for beatification to be opened only two months after his death.

But, Father Lombardi said, "it's wise the church takes its time."

Separately, though, scholars will continue to analyze the vast theological legacy Pope Benedict left behind.

As president of the foundation that promotes the late pope's theology, Father Lombardi defined as "negative" the practice of ignoring the "complete richness" of Pope Benedict's theology and focusing instead on singular elements within it.

He cited the example of Pope Benedict expanding permission for Catholics to use the pre-Vatican II celebration of the Mass.

"I never saw him celebrate (Mass) in the extraordinary form," Father Lombardi said. "He always celebrated as we all do. So, it's not that he was fixed on that, but he thought it could be useful for some people."

Pope Benedict's life work, he said, "personifies a theology that is dynamic, that is not fixed in a single moment and looks backward."

Pope Francis later determined that for the unity of the church, it was best to restrict the celebrations of the old rite.

Father Lombardi also noted that Pope Benedict's decision to resign, making the first pope to do so in nearly 600 years, was characteristic of his personality "as a man who lives his faith very rationally."

"The more I think about it, the more I realize that he had to be the first to resign (in modern times), because he saw very clearly not only the intensity of the mission, but also the circumstances and consequences of remaining (in office) as an elderly person that becomes weak," he said.

That decision, along with his contributions to the Second Vatican Council and its subsequent development, will be the late pope's legacy, Father Lombardi said.

"If someone talks about Ratzinger in 50 or 100 years," he said, "they will remember him as the great pope-theologian, and the pope who resigned."