Huge crowd hears pope's call for a 'spiritual renewal'

Benedict XVI waves as he leads the Sunday Angelus prayer in St Peter's Square at the Vatican today. Photograph: Max Rossi/Reuters

Benedict XVI waves as he leads the Sunday Angelus prayer in St Peter's Square at the Vatican today. Photograph: Max Rossi/Reuters


A huge crowd of more than 100,000 people gathered in St Peter’s Square this morning to hear Pope Benedict XVI’s midday Sunday Angelus homily.

It was the penultimate such homily of his pontificate and the first since he announced last Monday that he would resign as Pope on February 28th next.

On what for many was an emotional occasion, with some pilgrims weeping openly, the 85-year-old pope said that all the faithful are called on to make a spiritual renewal.

“The Church calls on all its members to renew themselves in spirit and to decisively re-orient themselves towards God, renouncing pride and egoism and choosing to live in love,” he said.

Pointing out that last Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, signals the start of Lent, the Church’s annual moment of “conversion and penitence in preparation for Easter”, the pope said that this was a good moment to “refind faith in God as the guiding criteria in life”.

The pope also said that on a day when Catholics contemplate Christ praying, fasting and being tempted in the desert, “we join Him (Christ) and ask Him to give us strength to fight our weaknesses.”

When the Pope finished leading the prayers, he was greeted with a sustained ovation from the crowd, an ovation which he himself eventually cut short as he moved on to addressing the faithful in French, English, German, Spanish and Polish. His final greeting was for Italian pilgrims.

“Thank you all, thank you for coming today in such numbers…Your presence here is a sign of the affection and spiritual solidarity that you have shown me throughout these days, ” he said.

Amongst the faithful in St Peter’s Square, opinion was divided on the issue of Benedict’s resignation.

Some people were clearly upset, whilst at least one banner in the crowd read, “We Have Always Loved You, Thank you”.

Other pilgrims expressed their perplexity, with many arguing that Benedict must be really sick or under some unnamed pressure for him to opt to step down from the Seat of Peter.

Today’s Angelus served as a dry run for the series of important days which await the people and the security forces of Rome over the next month. On Wednesday 27th the day before he resigns, Benedict will hold his last public audience in St Peter’s Square, whilst the Conclave to elect his successor is expected to start around March 10th.

Yesterday, the Holy See’s senior spokesman suggested that the Conclave may be anticipated for a number of reasons, thus shortening the “sede vacante” (empty chair) interregnum period between Benedict and his successor.

Given the speed of modern travel which makes it relatively easy for the Cardinals to get to Rome and given, above all, that this time there is no period of mourning following the death of a pope, it makes sense to anticipate the whole electoral process.

On top of all that, there is the danger that were a mid-March conclave to prove long and intractable, then it might run into Holy Week which this year begins on March 24th, Palm Sunday.

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