VATICAN CITY (CNS) – A quiet hush covered the vast expanse of St. Peter’s Square even though it was filled with thousands of people slowly winding their way around the colonnade into St. Peter’s Basilica to pay their last respects to the late Pope Benedict XVI.

Outdoor souvenir sellers were well-stocked with rosaries Jan. 2, but they seemed to have been caught off guard with a plethora of touristy tchotchkes and few to no images or mementos of the late pope.

The body of Pope Benedict XVI lies in St. Peter’s Basilica for public viewing at the Vatican Jan. 2, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

A damp chill hung in the air at 9 in the morning when the doors of the basilica opened to the public on the first of three days to view the pope’s body.

Special accommodations, however, were made for officials of the Roman Curia, Vatican staff and dignitaries who were allowed access from the back of the basilica and offered a place to sit or kneel on either side of the pope’s body, which was laid out in red vestments on a damask-covered platform.

Before the doors opened to the general public, Cardinal Mauro Gambetti, the archpriest of the basilica and papal vicar for Vatican City State, accompanied Italian President Sergio Mattarella and his entourage and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and other government ministers to pay homage to the late pope.

The first in line outside the basilica was a group of religious sisters from the Philippines, who said they got there at 5:30 a.m.

People kept slowly arriving before sunrise, including a group from Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin, led by Father Richard Kunst of Duluth. The priest told Catholic News Service that he was leading a tour of Rome the day Pope Benedict died.

Being able to see and pay homage to the late pope made the group part of “a really incredible piece of history,” he said.

Father Kunst said he was “a big fan” of Pope Benedict and “not sad at his passing” since the 95-year-old pope had lived a long life and “this is what he lived for — to be able to be with God.”

Father Felipe de Jesús Sánchez, who is from Mexico and is studying in Rome, told CNS that he saw Pope Benedict as “a simple man, humble, a model, who didn’t have as much fame as John Paul II, but he was the mind behind him.”

“For me, in my personal opinion, he was an authentic testimony of what it means to be Christian and a disciple of Jesus,” he said.

Father Matthew Schmitz was with a group of 90 young people from ECYD, an international Catholic youth organization affiliated with Regnum Christi.

“We were praying while we were waiting, we prayed the rosary” and went inside the basilica in silence, he told CNS.

He said he was in Rome for his studies when Pope Benedict was elected in 2005, and “I met him once after an Easter Mass,” which means “I’m still kind of processing” the fact that he found himself back in Rome when the pope died.

Ana Sofia de Luna, who is with ECYD and from Mexico, said, “It’s very sad that Pope Benedict died, but being here and seeing his body was a great blessing, to be able to ask for grace and seeing his body there was very impactful.”

Daniela Romero, a member of the group from Guatemala, said, “to be able to come here and see that we are representing and supporting the church is a blessing.”

Father Justin Kizewski happened to be traveling with a group of 45 seminarians and nine priests on pilgrimage from Madison, Wisconsin.

He said, “I’ve been privileged to accompany him through his pontificate: I was here in the square when he was elected, I was here in the square when he resigned, and now here when he’s lying in state.”

“When we read his writings, or heard him preach, or saw him celebrate the Mass, we really saw a man that cares for his sheep and gives us an example of how to care for ours,” he said.

Hannah O’Connor from Rhode Island credits Pope Benedict as being instrumental in her conversion during college, where “we read a lot of Ratzinger.”

His writings and pontificate were “an important part of my journey,” she said, and “I hope that people keep encountering his works and are brought to the one church through beauty, that’s what really drew me in.”

Sugey Viramontes from Mexico told CNS that, “without a doubt, his example of simplicity, and above all how he spent his last few years, always in prayer, is a great example for us young people.”

Inside the basilica, staff and security kept visitors moving smoothly and quickly, letting people stop before the pope’s remains long enough to make the sign of the cross and take a picture or two before being asked quietly to “Please, move along.”

However, many took advantage of the large nooks and niches in the basilica to press up against a wall or barricade and linger just a little while longer.

Pope Benedict’s mortal remains were to lie in repose in the basilica for three days until the late evening of Jan. 4; Pope Francis was scheduled to preside over the funeral Mass Jan. 5.

Rome authorities estimated there would be 30,000 to 35,000 people a day visiting the basilica and an estimated 60,000 people attending the funeral in St. Peter’s Square. But Vatican police said that 40,000 people had already entered the basilica to pray by 2 p.m. Jan. 2.

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – The day after Christmas the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, which emphasizes how the story of Jesus’ birth is not a “fairy tale,” but a call to live as witnesses of the Gospel, Pope Francis said.

Marking the feast Dec. 26, a public holiday in Italy, Pope Francis led the recitation of the Angelus prayer at noon with thousands of visitors and pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square.

Pope Francis waves to visitors and pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican for the recitation of the Angelus prayer Dec. 26, the feast of St. Stephen. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

By putting the martyrdom of St. Stephen on the calendar the day after Christmas, he said, “the liturgy really seems to want to steer us away from the world of lights, lunches and gifts in which we might indulge somewhat in these days.”

The point, he said, is that “Christmas is not the fairy tale of the birth of a king, but it is the coming of the Savior, who frees us from evil by taking upon himself our evil: selfishness, sin, death.”

The Bible says St. Stephen was a deacon, the pope said, which “means that his first witness was not given in words, but through the love with which he served those most in need.”

At the same time, the Acts of the Apostles describes how Stephen spoke of Jesus to those he met, sharing with them the faith.

“However, his greatest testimony is yet another: that he knew how to unite charity and proclamation,” the pope said, by “following the example of Jesus” and forgiving those who were about to kill him.

St. Stephen shows that “we can improve our witness through charity toward our brothers and sisters, faithfulness to God’s word and forgiveness,” the pope said. “It is forgiveness that tells whether we really practice charity toward others and live the word of Jesus.”

Over the holidays, when many people are spending time with family and friends, there may be “someone with whom we have not gotten along, who has hurt us, with whom we have never mended the relationship,” the pope said. “Let us ask the newborn Jesus for the newness of a heart that can forgive: We all need a forgiving heart!”

Pope Francis also used the occasion once again to wish people peace — “peace in families, peace in parishes and religious communities, peace in movements and associations, peace for those peoples tormented by war, peace for the dear and embattled Ukraine.”

Noting that many people in the crowd held Ukrainian flags, the pope again said, “Let us ask for peace for this suffering people!”