A handful of faithful in the German town of Regensburg braved the early morning cold on Thursday to attend mass at the gothic cathedral, where a large portrait of the pope emeritus sits on the altar.
“I am asking you to accompany Benedict on his final journey,” Regensburg’s auxiliary bishop told worshippers.
The hommage to Benedict is particularly poignant in the medieval city on the banks of the Danube, where the former pope lived and worked at the local university for years.
On Wednesday, current Pope Francis called on all Catholics to say a “special prayer” for his predecessor, whose health had worsened considerably in recent days.
READ ALSO: Six things to know about Catholicism in Germany
In Regensburg, everyone has their anecdote about the former pope, who taught at the university between 1969 and 1977 and came back regularly to visit his brother, the leader of the cathedral choir.
“He often came past our house,” said Birgit Steib, 53, on her way out of the morning mass. A biologist by profession, she said she was “shaken” by the news from the Vatican, where Benedict still lives.
“He was a great theologian. I learnt a lot from him,” said Eva Maria Strobel, 64, a religious studies teacher at a secondary school, after a later mass at Saint John’s collegiate church, next to the cathedral.
“He was often in Regensburg. It was like we were in the same family,” she said, recalling the pride felt locally at Benedict’s nomination in 2005. “During mass at the cathedral we all applauded.”
“Everyone is very attached to Benedict XVI here,” said Siegfried Hofer, 53, another local resident and Catholic. “You are very moved when you know that a pope from Regensburg is dying,” he added.
Around 120 kilometres (75 miles) from Regensburg to the south in Benedict’s hometown of Marktl am Inn the mood is also sombre.
“Benedict is very present here,” Amelie, 14, told AFP. “I’m moved by it already a little,” she said of the news of the pope’s ill-health.
On Wednesday night in Saint Oswald’s church in Marktl, where the young pope, born Joseph Ratzinger, was baptised, a red candle was lit in front of a portrait of the pope.
“Many tourists come to Marktl just because of him,” said Cornelia Haubrich, 59, who lives locally.
She recalls coming “very close” to the pontiff during a visit in September 2006, a “special” moment for her family.
The sympathy felt for one of Bavaria’s most famous sons does not however disguise the bitterness over the scandals which dogged Benedict’s time in office, notably over paedophilia and the Catholic church.
“Personally, I am not his biggest fan because he covered up a lot… that he was responsible for, which was not alright,” Sybille Mandl, 70, told AFP in Regensburg.
As elsewhere around the world, the Catholic Church in Germany has been rocked by child sex abuse scandals, which have caught up with the former pope.
- Probe finds ex-pope Benedict failed to act in German abuse cases
- Ex-pope Benedict under scrutiny in German child abuse probe
A damning report last January accused him of personally having failed to stop four predatory priests in the 1980s while archbishop of Munich.
Benedict has denied wrongdoing and the Vatican has strongly defended his record.
Karin Frauendorfer, a resident in Marktl, said she was “disappointed by him” over the scandal.
But she believes the episode has also weighed heavily on the former pontiff, and now hopes “he finds his peace”.
By Florian Cazere with Andrea Hentschel in Marktl am Inn