VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is lucid, alert and stable but his condition remains serious, the Vatican said Thursday, a day after it revealed that the 95-year-old’s health had deteriorated recently.
A statement from Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said Pope Francis asked for continued prayers “to accompany him in these difficult hours.”
On Wednesday Francis revealed that Benedict was “very ill” and went to see Benedict at his home in the Vatican where he has lived since retiring in 2013, sparking fears that he was near death.
The Vatican later said Benedict’s health had deteriorated in recent hours but that the situation was under control as doctors monitored him.
Benedict in 2013 became the first pope in 600 years to resign, and he chose to live out his retirement in seclusion in a converted monastery in the Vatican Gardens. Few had expected his retirement — now in its 10th year — to last longer than his eight-year reign as pope.
Bruni said Thursday that Benedict “managed to rest well last night, is absolutely lucid and alert and today, while his condition remains grave, the situation at the moment is stable.”
“Pope Francis renews the invitation to pray for him and accompany him in these difficult hours,” he said.
Responding to that call, the diocese of Rome scheduled a special Mass in honor of Benedict on Friday at St. John Lateran, Benedict’s former cathedral in his capacity as the bishop of Rome. The pope’s vicar for Rome, Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, was to celebrate.
Word of Benedict’s declining health immediately posed questions about what would happen when he dies, given the unprecedented reality of having a reigning pope presumably presiding over the funeral of a former pope.
Most Vatican experts expect any funeral would resemble that for any retired bishop of Rome, albeit with the caveat that there would be official delegations to honor a former head of state, as well as pilgrims from Germany — homeland of Benedict, the former Joseph Ratzinger — and beyond.
In Germany on Thursday, bishops asked for prayers and some of the faithful headed to the Chapel of Grace on the town square in Altoetting, a major pilgrimage destination a few miles from Benedict’s hometown of Marktl am Inn that he visited many times in his life.
“I know that he has been preparing for his coming home in the eternal world,” said Herbert Hofauer, the retired mayor of the deeply Catholic town who said he saw Benedict last in the spring. “I believe that he is very calmly looking forward to this encounter.”
At the St. Oswald church in Marktl, where Benedict was baptized, lay head of the local congregation Sandra Maier put up a framed picture of the former pope and arranged a small pew so parishioners could kneel and pray for him.
Maier said she was “shaken and deeply moved by the news” on Benedict’s health. “I wish for him to have an easy time now and not suffer so much,” she said.
“We are proud here in Marktl that we have a Bavarian pope,” Maier, 50, said, recalling the two times she met him personally. “He’s a good man and was a great pope.”
While St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican was mostly filled with visitors from abroad on Thursday — during peak Christmas tourist season — some Italians were out to pay their respects or at least offer a prayer.
“Obviously it is a bad situation, we are all close to Pope Ratzinger, we are sad about the situation, so we came here to make our small contribution,” said one pilgrim, Giorgio Gibin.
Another visitor to the square, Anna Małcka, noted Benedict’s advanced age and wished him well.
“I think by now he has lived about long enough, poor thing, and since he is sick, he is not well, if God wishes, he will take him away,” she said.
Otherwise, while the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano headlined its Thursday editions with news of Benedict’s health, life continued as normal in the tiny city-state that Benedict and Pope Francis call home.
Francis had a seemingly routine day of audiences Thursday, meeting with his ambassador to Madagascar, the commander of the Swiss Guards and a fellow Jesuit.
In the square, the line of tourists waiting to get into St. Peter’s Basilica wrapped almost entirely around the piazza, with couples and families stopping to pose for selfies in front of the life-sized Nativity scene and Christmas tree set up in the square.
Small groups of nuns hurried across the cobblestones and tour guides holding flags herded their charges, while nearby souvenir sellers did brisk business hawking Vatican magnets, rosaries and bobblehead Francis statues.
“We hadn’t heard the news,” said Liam Marchesano, a 22-year-old economics student from Mantova who was waiting to see the basilica with his girlfriend. “Maybe that’s why there’s such a long line.”
Kirsten Grieshaber contributed from Marktl Am Inn, Germany; Luigi Navarra and Joel Paqui contributed from Vatican City.