Pope Benedict XVI delivered an emotional last Sunday prayer in St Peter’s Square yesterday, saying God had told him to devote himself to prayer, but assuring supporters he would not “abandon” the church.
Tens of thousands of supporters turned out for the historic prayers ahead of the pope’s formal resignation on Thursday, often interrupting the pope with their clapping, cheering and chanting.
“The Lord is calling me to climb the mountain, to dedicate myself even more to prayer and meditation, but this does not mean abandoning the church,” the pope told the crowd from the window of his residence in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican.
“If God is asking me to do this, it is precisely so I can continue to serve with the same dedication and love as before, but in a way that is more appropriate for my age and for my strength,” he said.
The 85-year-old leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics has said he will step down because he no longer has the strength of mind and body to carry on.
His shock resignation ended an eight-year pontificate dominated by the priest child sex abuse scandal and efforts to counter rising secularism in the West.
He thanked the crowd with a final unscripted call, telling them: “We will always be close!”
The Vatican and Rome police estimated the numbers at more than 100,000 people — many times more than usually attend the traditional Sunday prayer.
Some Italian media have speculated his health may be far worse than the Vatican revealed, and others have said an explosive report into the “Vatileaks” scandal may be to blame.
The Vatican’s Secretariat of State — effectively the government of the Catholic Church — took the unusual step on Saturday of issuing a formal statement condemning “completely false news stories.”
The Panorama news weekly and the Repubblica daily said a report by a committee of cardinals into the leaks of confidential papal papers last year had uncovered allegations of intrigue, corruption and blackmail in the Vatican.
No clear favorite has emerged to succeed Joseph Ratzinger, but many observers say the cardinals, who make the choice, may plump for a much younger candidate who is a more pastoral figure than the academic Benedict.
A series of meetings of cardinals starting on Friday will determine the date of the start of the conclave to elect a new pope. The Vatican has hinted that it could be brought forward to early next month since there is no papal funeral.
Conclaves can last for days before a candidate wins a two-thirds majority.
Meanwhile, Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic cleric, who is due to vote on Benedict’s successor, has been reported to the Vatican over claims of inappropriate behavior, Britain’s Observer newspaper reported yesterday.
Cardinal Keith O’Brien, leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, contests allegations by three priests and a former priest which were sent to Rome a week before Benedict’s resignation.
The four claimants reported to nuncio Antonio Mennini, the Vatican’s ambassador to Britain, that O’Brien had committed “inappropriate acts” going back 33 years.
One priest claims he received unwanted attention from the cardinal after a late-night drinking session. Another alleges that O’Brien used night prayers as cover for inappropriate contact, according to the paper.