Pope Benedict XVI, in his first public comments since he announced that he would become the first pontiff in centuries to resign, yesterday said he was fully aware of the gravity of his decision, but confident that it would not hurt the Catholic Church.
“Continue to pray for me, for the church and for the future pope,” he said in unscripted remarks at the start of his weekly general audience, one of his last public appearances before he resigns on Feb. 28.
The pope, who looked and sounded strong, was interrupted several times by thunderous applause from about 8,000 faithful and tourists who packed the vast audience hall, the Sala Nervi.
He had received a lengthy standing ovation when he entered the hall for the ceremony, which was carried live by Italian television channels.
In brief, prepared remarks that mirrored those he read to stunned cardinals when he announced his decision on Monday, the pope said God would continue to guide the church because it was much more than its earthly leader.
“I took this decision in full freedom for the good of the church after praying for a long time and examining by conscience before God,” he said in Italian.
He said he was “well aware of the gravity of such an act, but at the same time aware of not being able to carry out my [papal] ministry with the physical and spiritual force that it requires.”
Benedict said he was sustained by the “certainty that the church belongs to Christ, who will never stop guiding it and caring for it.”
He said that “he felt almost physically” the affection and kindness he had received since he announced the decision.
Later yesterday, an Ash Wednesday Mass that was originally scheduled to have taken place in a small church in Rome, was moved to St Peter’s Basilica so more people could attend. However, the move will also spare the 85-year-old pope the usual procession to the church.
Unless the Vatican changes the pope’s schedule, it will be his last public Mass.
The high point of the mass, which launches the traditional period of penitence ahead of Easter in the Christian calendar, will see the pope mark the foreheads of the faithful with ashes.
Hours before Benedict was due to appear as yesterday’s audience, long lines snaked out into St Peter’s Square of people waiting to pass through metal detectors to get into the audience hall.
Tickets to the event were issued well in advance, so several thousand pilgrims experienced the historic moment out of sheer luck.
“We were just coming for vacation, and now we are getting all of this,” said Terry Rodger, a tourist from New Orleans, Louisiana, as he headed to the audience. “I am very excited. I’m surprised.”
Additional reporting by AP, AFP and Bloomberg