Pope Francis delivers his speech during his weekly general audience...

Pope Francis delivers his speech during his weekly general audience in the Pope Paul VI hall at the Vatican on Wednesday. Credit: AP/Andrew Medichini

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis praised Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s “acute and gentle thought” as he presided over a packed Wednesday general audience in the Vatican, while thousands of people paid tribute to the former pope on the final day of public viewing in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Francis was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd in the Paul VI auditorium and shouts of “Viva il papa!” or “Long live the pope” as he arrived for his weekly catechism appointment with the faithful.

This week’s audience was conducted as tens of thousands of people continued to flock to St. Peter's to pay their respects to Benedict's body, lying in state, before the official viewing ends Wednesday evening. From Monday through midday Wednesday, nearly 160,000 people had passed through the basilica, the Vatican said.

“It is my duty to come," said Małgorzata Nowska, a Polish resident of Rome as she paid her respects Wednesday. She said she wanted to give Benedict "a last hug, a last prayer.”

Francis is due to preside over the late German pope's funeral on Thursday, an event that is drawing heads of state and royalty despite Benedict’s requests for simplicity and Vatican efforts to keep the first Vatican funeral for an emeritus pope in modern times low-key. Only Italy and Germany were invited to send official delegations, and the Italian government announced Wednesday that Italian and European Union flags would fly at half-staff on public buildings across the country Thursday.

Francis drew applause when he opened his remarks by giving a shout-out to all those who were outside paying tribute to Benedict, whom he called a “great master of catechesis.”

“His acute and gentle thought was not self-referential, but ecclesial, because he always wanted to accompany us in the encounter with Jesus,” Francis said.

Later Wednesday, Vatican officials were to place Benedict’s body in a cypress coffin — the first of three coffins —along with a brief, written summary of his historic papacy, the coins minted during his pontificate and his pallium stoles.

After the funeral in the piazza, the remains will be carried back into the basilica, where the coffin will placed inside a zinc one, and then finally into another made from oak.

In keeping with Benedict's wishes, his remains will be placed in the crypt once occupied by the tomb of St. John Paul II in the grottos underneath the basilica. John Paul's tomb was moved upstairs into the main basilica ahead of his 2011 beatification.

Benedict, who was elected pope in 2005 following John Paul's death, became the first pope in six centuries years to resign when he announced in 2013 he no longer had the strength to lead the Catholic Church. After Francis was elected pope, Benedict spent his nearly decade-long retirement in a converted monastery in the Vatican Gardens.

“We can’t forget the example that he gave in his resignation, that he more or less said, ‘Look, I’m not in this for the prestige, the power of the office, I’m in it for service, as Jesus taught,’" recalled Cardinal Timothy Dolan, whom Benedict named archbishop of New York in 2009 and cardinal in 2012.

Thursday's rite takes into account the unusual situation in which a reigning pope will preside over a funeral for a retired one, making important changes to a funeral ritual for popes that is highly codified.

Two key prayers, from the diocese of Rome and the Eastern rite churches, that were recited during John Paul's funeral, for example, will be omitted because Benedict wasn't pope when he died and because both branches of the Catholic Church still have a reigning pope as their leader: Francis.

While the funeral will be novel, it does have some precedent: In 1802, Pope Pius VII presided over the funeral in St. Peter's of his predecessor, Pius VI, who had died in exile in France in 1799 as a prisoner of Napoleon, the Vatican noted Wednesday.

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