Catholic faithful hail 'a great pope' on Benedict's death

Catholics expressed sadness and admiration Saturday for former pope Benedict XVI, following news of his death aged 95.

"We are distraught... despite his critics, he was truly a great pope," said Davide Di Tommaso, 30, as he visited St Peter's Square from the southern Italian region of Molise.

The square in front of St Peter's Basilica was busy with holiday visitors when the news broke, three days after the Vatican had warned that Benedict's health was worsening.

"He was a fighting pope who deeply loved the Church," said Charbel Youssef, a 31-year-old Frenchman visiting on a pilgrimage.

He said he and his fellow pilgrims prayed for the late pope, who shocked the Catholic Church in 2013 by stepping down, citing his declining physical and mental health.

He "truly fulfilled his role as a shepherd on Earth. He took it very seriously, and that was a good thing for us," he said.

Benedict, whose birth name is Joseph Ratzinger, was a brilliant theologian who staunchly defended traditional Catholic values on issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

But he alienated many Catholics, while he also struggled to lead the Church, with his eight-year papacy marred by in-fighting and the global scandal over clerical sex abuse.

Milo Cecchetto, a young Roman, said he had been hit hard by Benedict's death, telling AFP: "He was a very reserved person, but... he did a lot for the Church.

"He opened the way for Francis. We don't yet realise what he did, but I think history will remember it."

Meanwhile in Germany, where Ratzinger was born, flags flew at half-mast across his native Bavaria.

Mourners gathered at St Oswald's church in his home town of Marktl am Inn, where a mass would be held in his honour later Saturday.

Dane Cupic, 68, travelled to Marktl from nearby Austria, saying it was "very important" to be at the church service "to say goodbye".

- 'Great example' -

Benedict's body will be displayed from Monday morning in St Peter's Basilica, to allow the faithful to pay their respects.

The funeral will take place in St Peter's Square on Thursday morning, overseen by Pope Francis, the Vatican said.

The pope emeritus had been living a quiet life in a former convent inside the Vatican grounds since becoming the first pope to resign in six centuries.

Karl Michael Nuck, a 55-year old at St Oswald's church, defended Benedict's record on abuse, saying he was "not the only one who did not sort it out".

It was "a bit one-sided" to blame him alone for the Church's failure to stop paedophile priests.

And in St Peter's Square, United States tourist Michael Dauphinee hailed Benedict as a "great example".

"Finding the courage to say, I'm not what my church needs right now -- I think that's a pretty impressive decision to make," said Dauphinee.

"I'm a Protestant, but as a leader in general, he sets a great example of knowing your own limitations."

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