THE pope has basked in an emotional send-off from a massive crowd at his final general audience in St Peter’s Square, recalling moments of “joy and light” but also times of difficulty when “it seemed like the Lord was sleeping”.
An estimated 150,000 people, many with banners saying “Grazie!”, jammed the piazza to bid Benedict farewell and hear his final speech as pontiff. In this appointment – which he has kept each week for eight years to teach the world about the Catholic faith – Benedict gave deep thanks to his flock for respecting his decision to retire.
Benedict clearly enjoyed the crowds, taking a long victory lap around the square in an open-sided car and stopping to kiss and bless half a dozen children handed to him by his secretary. A total of 70 cardinals, some tearful, sat in attendance.
But Benedict made a quick exit, foregoing the typical meet-and-greet session that follows the audience; the Vatican has said there were simply too many people who would have wanted to say goodbye.
Given the historic moment, Benedict also changed course and did not produce his typical professorial Wednesday catechism lesson. Rather, he made his final public appearance in St Peter’s a personal one, explaining once again why he was becoming the first pope in 600 years to resign and urging the faithful to pray for his successor.
“To love the church means also to have the courage to take difficult, painful decisions, always keeping the good of the church in mind, not oneself,” Benedict said to thundering applause.
He noted that a pope has no privacy: “He belongs always and for ever to everyone, to the whole church.” But the pope promised that in retirement he would not be returning to private life – instead taking on a new experience of service to the church through prayer.
Under a bright sun and blue skies, the square was overflowing with pilgrims and curiosity-seekers. Those who could not get in picked spots along the main boulevard leading to the square to watch the event on giant TV screens. Some 50,000 tickets were requested for Benedict’s final master class.
Benedict will meet cardinals today for a final time, then fly by helicopter to the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo south of Rome. There at 8pm the doors of the palazzo will close and the Swiss Guards in attendance will go off duty, their service protecting the head of the Catholic Church over – for now.
Many of the cardinals who will choose Benedict’s successor were in St Peter’s Square for his final audience.
They will begin meeting on Monday to decide when to set the date for the conclave.
Meanwhile, Pope Benedict has spoken of his gratitude for the welcome he received on his visit to Britain in September 2010.
The pope is “grateful” for the prayers of British Catholics following his decision to leave office on grounds of age and infirmity, according to a letter written on his behalf by Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Becciu, a Vatican official.
The message addressed to the Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols, said the pope continued to give thanks for the “many graces” he received during his four-day visit to Scotland and England in 2010.
It added that Pope Benedict would pray for the UK faithful.