Pope admits to packed crowds in last public audience to ‘difficult moments’ during his tenure when ‘Lord seemed to be sleeping’
As his papacy entered its final hours, Pope Benedict XVI admitted on Wednesday that his eight-year spell as head of the Roman Catholic church had had its “difficult moments” when he felt that God “seemed to be sleeping”.
Before tens of thousands of pilgrims in St Peter’s Square who had come to hear his final general audience, the outgoing pope looked tired but serene as he thanked believers for understanding his decision to resign “for the good of the church”.
Smiling and waving from an open-sided car, he toured the square, stopping occasionally to bless babies.
In a very personal homily, which differed in tone from his usual Wednesday messages, Benedict recalled that when he agreed to become pope on 19 April 2005 he felt the calling placed “a great burden” on his shoulders.
The eight years that followed, he said, had had moments “of joy and light” but also of difficulty. His papacy was marred by the unfolding clerical abuse scandal in Europe and the United States, and by the so-called Vatileaks affair.
“I have felt like St Peter with the Apostles in the boat on the Sea of Galilee: the Lord has given us many days of sunshine and gentle breeze, days in which the catch has been abundant; [then] there have been times when the seas were rough and the wind against us … and the Lord seemed to be sleeping,” he said.
In strikingly human comments, Benedict said his concerns in 2005 had been based partly on the knowledge that from then on he would have no privacy. In what could be seen as a warning to his successor, he said: “He who assumes the Petrine [papal] ministry no longer has any privacy. He belongs always and completely to everyone, to the whole church. His life is, so to speak, totally deprived of the private sphere.”
Benedict will cease to be pope at 8pm Italian time on Thursday. After a final meeting with cardinals in the morning, he will leave the Vatican City at 5pm by helicopter, making a brief flight to the hilltop town of Castel Gandolfo. There, amid pilgrims, he is expected to make one last public appearance as pope before becoming, instead, “emeritus pope”, as he will be styled.
Cardinals, many of whom were massed on the steps of St Peter’s basilica alongside Benedict on Wednesday, will then begin consultations ahead of a conclave to choose a successor.
The secretive process, which could start as early as next week, is already mired in controversy after the resignation of the Scottish cardinal Keith O’Brien, who will no longer be attending. Another cardinal, the emeritus archbishop of Los Angeles, Roger Mahony, has withstood pressure from grassroots Catholic activists to stay away after court papers indicated he had helped shield priests accused of sex abuse.
On Wednesday Benedict stressed that although he was resigning for lack of strength, his ties to the church would remain. “I do not abandon the cross, but remain in a new way near to the crucified Lord,” he said, adding in separate remarks in English: “I will continue to accompany the church with my prayers and I ask each of you to pray for me and for the new pope.”
To applause, he reiterated his reasons for resigning, saying: “Loving the church also means having the courage to make difficult and anguished choices, always keeping the church in mind, not oneself.”
The Vatican said 50,000 tickets had been distributed for the audience, which was held in St Peter’s to make room for the swarms of pilgrims who came from all over the world to be there. Many more who could not get in lined the road leading from the square and watched the proceedings on large screens.
Maria, a 46-year-old musician from Stuttgart who declined to give her surname, carried a banner in German that read: “You were great! The holy mass in Latin – a real bomb. A shame you’re going. We love you.”
She said: “I’m very sad he’s going. I even sent him a letter asking him not to go.”
On Tuesday the Vatican announced that once he had resigned Benedict would forgo his red shoes but would continue to wear a white cassock. His official title will be either “emeritus pope” or “emeritus Roman pontiff”, and he will be referred to as “His Holiness Benedict XVI”.
Despite the Vatican’s insistence that he will step away completely from the running of the church, the clarifications sparked fresh concern that Benedict’s resignation would bring confusion in the Vatican and in the worldwide Catholic church over his role and that of his successor. The dual role of his secretary, Georg G nswein, who will be living with Benedict in a monastery in the Vatican at the same time as remaining prefect of the papal household, has also caused concern.
But others insist there will be no problem. “It is an unprecedented situation but canonically it is very clear,” said Father Pete, a Dutch priest who had come to watch the audience. “As of 8pm on 28 February he is not the pope any more, and whether you call him emeritus pope or emeritus bishop of Rome or even holy father, and whether he wears a white cassock or a black one, he is not the pope … There will only be one pope.”