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Retired Pope Benedict XVI's body begins lying in state at the Vatican

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The body of former Pope Benedict XVI is on public view at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

The Vatican has announced that Thursday's funeral will be solemn and simple.

INSKEEP: And NPR's Sylvia Poggioli will be covering it. She's on the line from Rome. Hi there, Sylvia.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Hi there, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's the funeral going to be like?

POGGIOLI: Well, we don't know much. When reigning popes die, there are very precise, elaborate rituals that take place over a nine-day period. But Benedict was the first pope to resign in more than 600 years. So it's likely that many precedents will be set this week. For instance, as far as is known, this will be the first ever funeral in more than 2,000 years of a former pope to be led by his successor, the reigning Pope Francis. The Vatican has said there will be only two official delegations from Italy and from Benedict's native Germany. And we know that according to Benedict's wishes, the funeral will be solemn but simple and that he'll be buried alongside other popes in the Vatican grottoes under St. Peter's Basilica.

INSKEEP: OK. So we don't know how this is all going to play out or what the symbolism will be. But you do have that public viewing today. What do people see?

POGGIOLI: Well, photos issued by the Vatican yesterday showed the body lying on a burgundy-colored bier near the altar of the chapel in the monastery on Vatican grounds where he lived for almost a decade. He was dressed in red and gold liturgical vestments, a miter on his head and a rosary in his hand. Nearby, there was a decorated Christmas tree. Now, the setting inside the basilica is certainly more somber and more imposing. And several Italian officials have already paid their respects this morning.

INSKEEP: Sylvia, I'm thinking about Benedict's place in history. And I feel that he cut a smaller figure than his predecessor or his successor. What kind of public reaction is likely now after his death?

POGGIOLI: Well, you know, after Pope Francis revealed last Wednesday that Benedict was seriously ill, only small groups of people went to St. Peter's Square. This morning, though, thousands were lined up before dawn, waiting to view the body and to pay their respects. Today's viewing will last 10 hours. And security officials expect at least 25,000 people to pass by the body today. You know, Benedict was highly revered in particular by conservative Catholics. But he did not have the charisma of either his predecessor, John Paul, or his successor, Francis.

INSKEEP: What's his substantive legacy, though?

POGGIOLI: Well, it's a complicated legacy. He was a very polarizing figure, a strict disciplinarian on issues of sexual morality and theological dissent. He made many missteps seriously offending Jews, Muslims and other Christian religions. And by his own admission, he was a very poor manager of the Vatican bureaucracy. As a former pope, he became a lightning rod for conservative Catholics opposed to the much more liberal Pope Francis. And many Benedict loyalists considered Benedict the real pope. He himself created confusion by calling himself emeritus pope and by continuing to wear white. But the real Benedict paradox is that with his shocking decision to resign, one of the most conservative popes in recent memory set the papacy on a radical new course. It will no longer be an anomaly to have a pope and a former pope living at the same time.

INSKEEP: Interesting historical figure. Sylvia, thanks so much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is in Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli
Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.