Tears inside St Peter's Basilica as Pope lies small and fragile amid the pomp

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The body of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI lays in state at St. Peter
The body of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI lays in state at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican (Image: AFP via Getty Images)

It is the soles of his small feet which greet us, the relaxed queue suddenly clamouring as it catches first sight of the petite figure of Pope Benedict XVI.

Under Michelangelo’s cavernous dome hovering 447ft above the 265th pope in the Vatican ’s vast St Peter’s Basilica, the inert figure of the former pontiff, who died on Saturday, is completely dwarfed as he lies in state. And those shoes on feet pointed ruler-straight to heaven look so surprisingly workaday amid all the pomp of his gold-edged white mitre and papal robes, they bring unexpected tears to my eyes.

They are such a sharp contrast to the splendid red slippers Pope Benedict was famous for wearing as pope, to me they make this statue-like figure suddenly appear vulnerable; a 95-year-old man revealed beneath all the layers of leadership.

Around me today as I joined the crowds on the third and final day of the Pope Emeritus’ lying in state ahead of tomorrow’s funeral - the pope whose surprise resignation in 2013 made history as the first in six centuries - camera phones suddenly shoot up.

Tears inside St Peter's Basilica as Pope lies small and fragile amid the pomp rridqziqtqitinvMourners file past the body of Pope Benedict XVI (Tim Merry/Daily Mirror)

A child bundled in a red puffer on his father’s shoulders snaps from his birdseye view, nuns, clergy and the faithful flick between lifting their screens, crossing their chests and dipping to the ground, some hold their hands in prayer, while mothers clutch uncertain children’s shoulders.

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One boy holds up a photograph to the unseeing pope - a lost grandparent, perhaps? Another girl uses her tiny pinkie to trace the cross. A near-newborn starts to cry, piercing the hum.

As guards repeat “don’t stop” in an effort to avoid a bottleneck, an elderly lady slips in the huddle. Another turns and waves gently to the pope’s body as she is ushered past.

This queue, which began on Monday morning, and has commenced each day since before dawn, for 12 hours at a time, seeing some 135,000 pass by on the first two days alone, bears little resemblance to the polite snake that formed in London to see our late Queen. It moves faster - few report a wait of more than an hour - and as well as taking photos, some even attempt selfies.

Tears inside St Peter's Basilica as Pope lies small and fragile amid the pompMourners paid tribute to the late Pope (Tim Merry/Daily Mirror)

Although most are Italian here, all nationalities have come, Brits among them.

“It is very raw in there, you feel the sadness,” says Andy Hirst, 37, who has queued while on holiday with his partner Alice Milsom, 29.

The pair from near Colchester, Essex, admit they are “overwhelmed”. Neither are practising Catholics, although Alice was brought up one.

“When you see him it brings it all into perspective, how he has devoted his life to his faith,” explains Alice.

“The difficult part for me was seeing the tourists taking photos,” she admits. She didn’t join in.

Andy is right, the atmosphere feels raw, perhaps echoing the initial jolt of the pope’s exposed figure with its pallid, greenish face.

Tears inside St Peter's Basilica as Pope lies small and fragile amid the pompPope Emeritus Benedict XVI greeting a crowd in St Mark's Square, Venice, in 2011 (Getty Images)

Only occasional prayers over loudspeaker, and soaring choral singing - at one stage a procession wafts smokey, fragranced incense - soothes the energy.

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Pope Benedict’s resignation just eight years after he was appointed in 2005, marked him as one of the papacy’s most revolutionary leaders.

Yet ironically, he was a deeply traditionalist pope, both beloved and polarising for his orthodox views.

He was also criticised for not doing enough to intervene in clerical abuse scandals.

In resigning he created the novel circumstance of a pope, his successor Pope Francis, and former pope, living side by side.

And of tomorrow’s funeral which will be the first time a pope has presided over a predecessor’s funeral since 1802, when Pope Pius VII celebrated the funeral of his predecessor, Pius VI, who died in exile in France as a prisoner of Napoleon.

Tears inside St Peter's Basilica as Pope lies small and fragile amid the pompPeople pray as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI lies in state at St. Peter's Basilica (Getty Images)

Around 60,000 are expected to attend the ceremony at 9.30am Italian time, and chairs are packed tightly in St Peter’s Square where Pope Benedict’s coffin will be brought out.

History is why another British family, the Vanderwolks, wanted to queue while on holiday with their two sons, Pirran, 11, and Giles, nine.

Mum Zoe, from Eton, Buckinghamshire, describes how the queue began singing “movingly” around them as a mass inside the Basilica started.

While Giles is excited, Pirran seems a little less sure.

“I had never seen a dead body before, he was very grey,” he confides.

Elsewhere in the crowd a myriad of perspectives from the devout to the faithless jostle.

Smiling nuns Sister Cynthia, 57, and Sister Goretti, 36, explain: “In his silence we learn God really exists.”

Newly-weds Alain Anstett, 32, and wife Laurence, 24, in her wedding dress, have come this week from Switzerland for a marital benediction from Pope Francis, and find reassurance in Pope Benedict, too. ”God is both at the beginning and at the end,” she says.

Curious families like the Morrises from Utah, on holiday, wrestle with his controversy, explaining while he was conservative, he was “trying to protect the church”.

While parents Valaria Pazzi, 43, and Fabio Flavi, 46, Catholics from Milan with their 11-year-old son, simply want “to pray and say goodbye.”

The Allendes from Mexico explain their four-year-old, Mikela, was transfixed by the pope.

“She was asking why he died,” they say. “We said: ‘His work here is finished’.”

in Rome

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