Tens of thousands of people jammed into St Peter’s Square yesterday to bid Pope Benedict XVI a last farewell at his final general audience before he becomes the first pontiff to resign in 600 years.
The Pope greeted the adoring crowds by making several rounds of the square in his popemobile, as he was cheered wildly. He stopped to kiss a half-dozen children brought up to him by his secretary.
Addressing an estimated 150,000 people, Benedict said his crisis-hit papacy had included moments of joy but also difficulty when, “It seemed like the Lord was sleeping.”
He said he understood the gravity of his decision to become the first pope to resign in 600 years, but said he had done it for the ‘good of the Church’.
He said, “I took this step in full awareness of its gravity and rarity but also with profound serenity of spirit.” He said he was not ‘coming down from the cross’ despite renouncing his office, but would remain in the service of the church through prayer. He asked the faithful to pray for the cardinals and whoever they chose as his successor.
He said that ‘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 thanked his cardinals, colleagues and ordinary faithful for their support and for respecting his decision. Worshippers unfurled banners saying ‘Thank you!’ as the Pope prepared for his final general audience, the appointment he kept each week to teach the world about the Catholic faith.
St Peter’s was overflowing and pilgrims and curiosity-seekers were picking spots along the main boulevard nearby to watch the event on giant TV screens. Some 50,000 tickets were requested for Benedict’s final master class, but Italian media estimated the number of people actually attending could be double that.
With chants of ‘Benedetto’ erupting every so often, the mood — even hours before Benedict was to arrive — was far more buoyant than during the Pope’s final Sunday blessing.
He will meet on Thursday morning with cardinals for a final time, then fly by helicopter to Castel Gandolfo south of Rome. The Pope will be left in the care of his butler and two secretaries. He is due to spend two months there while workers prepare more permanent lodgings in a convent inside the Vatican where he will live out his life, ‘hidden to the world’.