Pope Says ‘Pray for Me’ as Thousands Gather to Bid Farewell

Benedict XVI asked the faithful to pray for him today as thousands gathered at his weekly audience to bid him farewell after he reiterated his intention to become the first pontiff to resign in almost 600 years.

Benedict repeated that he will resign on Feb. 28, saying he no longer has the strength to effectively lead the Roman Catholic Church. He called on the faithful “to continue to pray for me, for the church and to pray for the new pope.”

Italian television channels carried the ceremony live from the Sala Nervi, an auditorium inside the Vatican, which was filled to its capacity of more than 6,000. The audience broke into applause, with groups of nuns waving yellow and white Vatican flags when Benedict began to speak. Some held large banners saying “Thank you your Holiness.”

The weekly audience consists of teachings and readings by the pope and other church officials, conducted in a range of languages. Today the pope spoke about Jesus Christ being tempted by the devil in the desert and about “converting to God” during the period of Lent which begins today. Benedict repeated the message in a spate of languages including Italian, German, French and English.

Message for Clergy

“God is not an instrument to be used for one’s own ends, for one’s own glory, for one’s own success,” Benedict said stressing the need to place God before “one’s own interests.”

Some saw a message to his faithful and the clergy couched within the speech and a possible reference to the in-fighting that led to last year’s scandal known as Vatileaks. The pope’s butler was convicted by a Vatican court of leaking papal documents to a journalist. The texts formed the backbone of a book that portrayed the Vatican as a hotbed of intrigue and Benedict as a leader undermined by his powerful second-in-command, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, once touted as a possible candidate for the papacy.

“It is a strong message against putting man before God, power before faith,” Federico Niglia, an International History professor at Rome’s Luiss University said in an interview. “He’s both explaining his gesture, and offering a model to his Church which had left this theme aside for a long time.”

The pope’s Feb. 11 announcement stunned the world and rocked the faithful, who are accustomed to the pontiff remaining until his death.

‘Great Pain’

“For me it was like he had died, it was a great pain as I have always been fond of him and I have always admired him for his ability to say clear words and being sweet at same time, Sister Giovanna Lucchini, an 85-year-old nun, from Como, Italy said outside St. Peter’s.

While the audience in the hall were enthusiastic in their support for Benedict’s decision, other Catholics were disturbed by his choice to resign.

“I am disappointed, because I think that being a pope is an honor and not something you can renounce,” said Jennie Guadas, 45, a lawyer from Rio de Janeiro. “I am also concerned about the future of the church and about my country, which is a Catholic country.”

Today the pontiff called on the clergy to avoid divisions and set an example for the faithful and non-believers. “The face of the church is sometimes disfigured, I think in particular of the strokes against its unity and of divisions within the clergy,” he said during a celebration of Ash Wednesday in St Peter’s Basilica. “Overcoming individualism and rivalries is a humble and precious signal to those who are far from the faith.”

Monti, Bank

The pope will continue his public appearances and maintain his commitments, including a private audience with Prime Minister Mario Monti on Feb. 16, a week before elections in Italy, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said today at a press conference in Rome.

Lombardi said the meeting has nothing to do with the vote, and stemmed from a previous commitment with the Italian premier. The Vatican will also name a new head of Institute for Works of Religion, known as the Vatican bank, within days and not wait for the new pope, Lombardi said.

On his final day as pope on Feb. 28, Benedict will hold an 11 a.m. meeting with the church’s Cardinals, many of whom will be involved in choosing his successor, at a farewell meeting at the Vatican, Lombardi said. The pope will board a helicopter for Castel Gandolfo, his summer residence, at 5 p.m., with his papacy coming to end outside the Vatican.