Pope Benedict XVI called on Christians to lead a life that’s “coherent” with their beliefs in his last public address before becoming the first Roman Catholic pontiff in six centuries to relinquish power.
The German-born Benedict, 85, addressed a general audience of tens of thousands of pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square today. Entering the 17th-century plaza in the “Popemobile” for a final blessing, he spoke from a stage in front of St. Peter’s Basilica under blue skies. Benedict will become tomorrow the first pope to leave office since Gregory XII in 1415.
“Loving the church means knowing how to make hard and difficult choices with the good of the church, and not oneself, in first place,” Benedict said. Calling on Christians to feel joy and live a life that’s “coherent” with their beliefs, he said he’d decided to resign for “the church’s good,” he said.
Benedict’s last public address comes as cardinals gather in Rome to decide when to start the secret conclave to elect his successor amid scandals over clerical sex abuse and Vatican intrigue. The pope used a Feb. 13 sermon to speak out about the church’s “sometimes disfigured face” and a Feb. 23 message to the Curia to lament the “evil, suffering and corruption” that has defaced the centuries-old institution.
The crowd thronging St. Peter’s Square chanted, sang and held up signs before and after the pope’s address, which was delivered in Italian followed by excerpts in other languages including English and Croatian. “We don’t feel abandoned, but strengthened,” one sign read.
Reflecting on his election as pope almost eight years ago, Benedict said he’d “asked the Lord why you asked this of me, and what do you ask of me as this is a huge weight you’ve put on my shoulders.” Today, “I can say that the Lord guided me, he was close and I felt his presence daily” even as “not all moments have been easy.”
Italian media alleged last week that a secret internal probe into the leaking of papal documents detailed a network of sex and graft inside the Vatican. Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi has said the reports “don’t correspond to reality.” The pope met two days ago with the cardinals who led the investigation.
The resignation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Britain’s top Catholic cleric, was accepted by the pope with effect this week after allegations of his “inappropriate” conduct toward priests. He denied wrongdoing but won’t attend the conclave. Cardinal Roger Mahony, the former Los Angeles archbishop, said he’ll attend the secret vote even after U.S. court documents showed he played a role in covering up sex abuse by priests.
The pope announced Feb. 11 he would leave office because he lacked the physical and mental strength to lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. He will greet cardinals tomorrow before flying by helicopter to the papal summer residence in the hills south of Rome. Benedict will return to a Vatican convent in two months to live out his days in prayer.
“He’s done as much as he could, and I think things have been very difficult for him,” Sheryl Bryant, 67, a former Anglican from London, said in St. Peter’s Square when asked about the pope’s handling of scandals. “And sometimes these stories aren’t true” and “people try to sue because they want money, and I’m quite sad about it. It’s a money culture.”
During his reign, the pope “confronted problems and asked for forgiveness on behalf of the church,” Milan resident Cristina Casa, 41, said at the Vatican. “He’s been a great man in this, too.”
Benedict’s papal ring, which depicts St. Peter as a fisherman, and official lead seal will be “terminated,” while in retirement his title will be “pope emeritus” or “Roman pontiff emeritus,” Lombardi said. While he’ll still wear a white cassock, Benedict will drop his papal red shoes in favor of a pair of brown ones made for him by artisans in Mexico.
Start of Conclave
Two days ago, the pope issued a decree to allow the cardinals to bring forward the start of the conclave, which is widely expected to begin in the second week of March. Lombardi said cardinals will probably gather right after the weekend to decide on a date for the conclave.
The gathering will take place in the Sistine Chapel, under Michelangelo’s famed fresco of God breathing life into Adam, after the chapel has been swept for security breaches, Lombardi said. The decree, or “motu proprio” in Latin, also made the conclave’s secrecy rules stricter. Any violation is punishable by automatic excommunication, according to the document.
The pope concluded his final appearance today by singing the “Our Father” prayer in Italian before exiting in the Popemobile, introduced after the 1981 attempted assassination of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, in the same square.
Unlike at his normally weekly audiences, the pope didn’t offer the traditional “baciamano,” or kissing of his hand by the faithful. “Too many people would want one on the pope’s last day,” Lombardi said.