A statement from Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said Pope Francis asked for continued prayers “to accompany him in these difficult hours”.
Yesterday 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 today 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.
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 honour a former head of state, as well as pilgrims from Germany – homeland of Benedict, the former Joseph Ratzinger – and beyond.
In Germany, 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.”
While St Peter’s Square in the Vatican was mostly filled with visitors from abroad on Thursday (local time) – 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.”