'I remain within the bosom of St Peter'
Pope Benedict XVI giving his final general audience in St Peter's Square, in the Vatican, Rome, yesterday. photographs: alessandro bianchi / reuters
Cardinals including Archbishop Antonio Rouco Varela of Madrid react emotionally to the outgoing pope's words. photographs: alessandro bianchi/reuters
It was one of those days with History, complete with a capital H, written all over it. Resigning popes only get to do a final curtain call once every 600 years or thereabouts. In a brilliantly sunny, packed St Peter’s Square yesterday, Pope Benedict XVIth delivered the last public address of his pontificate.
Tonight, at 8pm Rome time, out at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, south of the city, he officially steps down off the seat of Peter.
As at his last Sunday Angelus address four days ago, this was a sober occasion, marked by a strong sense of sympathy and solidarity for Benedict from the huge crowd. There were no fanfares, no bombastic moments, just the usual public audience routine, prefaced by a popemobile tour of the square which provided the only moment of real excitement for the faithful as people rushed to get as close as possible to Benedict.
Chants of “Viva il papa” and “Ben-eh-detto” (Benedict) rang out around the square as the pope did a complete tour, travelling up and down the Vatican’s railed pathways. Up close, the pope looked well, perhaps even a little less tired than on recent public appearances. Clearly, the idea of imminent resignation does not trouble him.
When he began to speak, however, it immediately became clear this audience was, after all, significantly different. For once, he did not preach a sermon based on a quotation from the Bible. This time, he talked frankly about himself, thanking “all of you who have turned up in such numbers for my last public audience”.
More importantly, he appeared to defend his decision to resign, saying that the pope has no “privacy” but belongs “always” to the church.
“That always is really forever, there is no return to the private. My decision to renounce the active exercise of my ministry does not change this. There will be no return to the private life, no travels, no meetings, no receptions or conferences etc.
“However, this does not mean that I am stepping down off the cross, rather in a new way I remain with the crucified Lord. I no longer hold the office of the government of the church but, in my service of prayer, I remain within the bosom of St Peter.”
Were those remarks a thinly veiled retort to Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the former private secretary to Pope John Paul II, who, last week in response to news of Benedict’s resignation, was widely reported as saying that “you don’t get down off the cross”?
Earlier, Benedict had said that his pontificate had been marked by contrasting moments of calm and tempest.
He had sometimes felt like St Peter fishing with the Apostles in the sea of Galilee, buffeted by the winds and in stormy waters. However, he always knew that the Lord was with him on the boat and that he would not let it sink.
The message was clear: I might be resigning but the church is in no danger of running aground without me.
Today marks the final day of this eight-year pontificate. At 5pm, Benedict will climb on to a helicopter and fly out to Castel Gandolfo, which will be his temporary home until the renovation work at his new convent home within the Vatican is completed.
In keeping with Benedict’s low-profile media presence, there will be no particular ceremony to symbolically mark the moment when he makes the transition from Roman pontiff to Roman pontiff emeritus.
Asked what Benedict would do tonight, papal spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi last week said: “I imagine he will have his supper, say a prayer and go to bed.”