Antonin Scalia, a devout Catholic, was once lining up to make confession when he realized the priest was his own son. He beat a hasty retreat.

“As he put it later, ‘Like heck if I’m confessing to you,’” Father Paul Scalia recalled on Saturday. “The feeling was mutual.”

Father Paul was delivering a poignant yet humorous homily to his own father at a funeral mass attended by thousands of mourners at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.

Scalia, a pugnacious supreme court justice and perpetual thorn in the side of liberals, died suddenly a week ago, at the age of 79. If a man is to be judged by his children, he would have been proud.

Father Paul began: “We are gathered here because of one man, a man known personally to many of us, known only by reputation to many more; a man loved by many, scorned by others; a man known for great controversy and for great compassion.”

After a theatrical pause, he added: “That man, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth.”

In the past week, he explained, many had recounted what “Dad” did for them. “But here today we reflect what God did for Dad. How he blessed him!”

If Friday, when the justice lay in repose at the supreme court, had been about Scalia the jurist, Saturday was about Scalia the Catholic family man. Father Paul told how his father – the first Italian-American appointed to the supreme court – felt affection for the church’s tradition, and also preached about how that faith played a role in his father’s career on court, which he served for three decades.

“I hope that it is some consolation, if there are any lawyers present, that the Roman collar was not a shield against his criticism,” he said.

He noted Scalia’s 55 years of marriage to “a woman who could match him at every step and even hold him accountable”. He joked that his father sometimes mixed up the names of his nine children, then said the close bonds his father helped forge among the siblings were the greatest gift a parent could give his children. At that moment, his voice quivered slightly.

Among those attending were Vice-President Joe Biden, former vice-president Dick Cheney, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, members of Congress including Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz and all eight sitting justices of the supreme court. Four of the five Catholic justices took communion.

I wonder if President Obama would have attended the funeral of Justice Scalia if it were held in a Mosque?
– Donald Trump

Cruz’s election rival, Donald Trump, who was not present, waded into a controversy over Barack Obama’s non-attendance, tweeting during the service: “I wonder if President Obama would have attended the funeral of Justice Scalia if it were held in a Mosque? Very sad that he did not go!”

The mass was full of the majesty and spectacle of the American Catholic church. The foundation stone of the National Shrine was laid in 1920. Gorgeous ceiling mosaics and stained glass windows depict biblical scenes. The two-hour funeral mass began and ended with the swinging of incense and carrying of a gold crucifix as the building resounded with singing and organ music.

Scalia’s sons and sons-in-law served as pallbearers to carry his flag-draped casket. The supreme court justice Clarence Thomas, who shared Scalia’s conservative values, read a passage from the New Testament’s Book of Romans.

As the guests poured out, Augustus Alzona, an estate agent from Bethesda, Maryland, mused: “If you want to see the entire Archdiocese of Washington Catholic establishment, you can’t get more establishment than this.”

Asked about the president’s absence, Alzona replied: “As the holy father would say, who I am to judge? I think the vice-president’s attendance is appropriate. I’m certainly glad Senator Cruz is here but I hope it won’t affect his chances in the South Carolina primary.”

Related: Antonin Scalia’s supreme court career: cases, arguments – and heated debates

Obama and his wife, Michelle, were among more than 6,000 people who paid tribute to Scalia as he lay in repose at the supreme court on Friday.

Rick Santorum, a Republican senator and former presidential candidate attending Saturday’s mass, said: “The president paid his respects yesterday and I think that’s appropriate. The vice-president was here. Those are all personal decisions on the president’s part and I respect whatever he decides to do.”

Religion was central to Scalia’s life and work, Santorum said. “I felt that the mood in there was this is a fully Catholic man whose Catholic faith formed who he was and provided the foundation for everything that he is lauded for today. It’s a result of who he is and his relationship with Jesus Christ through the Catholic church. I think that was boldly reflected and professed in this mass today.”

Several federal judges who are considered possible replacements for Scalia also attended the funeral mass, including Sri Srinivasan, Patricia Millett and Merrick Garland, all of the US court of appeals for the District of Columbia circuit.

But as Scalia’s casket was taken away for a private family burial, most of the talk was about his son Paul. Brother Leonard Konopka, 82, based at the National Shrine, said: “The homily was the best I ever heard. He spoke from the heart.”

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