Ovation for Pope at last public Mass

Pope Benedict XVI leads the Ash Wednesday service at the St Peter's Basilica in Vatican City tonight. Photograph:Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Pope Benedict XVI leads the Ash Wednesday service at the St Peter's Basilica in Vatican City tonight. Photograph:Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Wed, Feb 13, 2013, 00:00

A capacity crowd in St Peter's Basilica gave Pope Benedict a thunderous standing ovation on tonight at his last public Mass before his resignation at the end of the month.

"Thank you. Now, let's return to prayer," the 85-year-old pontiff said, bringing an end to several minutes of applause that clearly moved him. In an unusual gesture, bishops took off their mitres in a sign of respect and a few of them wept.

One of the priests at the altar, which according to tradition rests above the tomb of St Peter, took out a handkerchief to dry his tears.

At the end of the mass, the thousands of worshippers erupted in minutes-long applause for Benedict, with cries of “Viva il papa!” (Long live the pope!) echoing around the vast basilica.

The pontiff’s trusted deputy, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, was visibly moved as he paid tribute to him. “We would not be sincere, your holiness, if we did not tell you that there is a veil of sadness over our hearts this evening,” he said.

Repeating Benedict’s own words on becoming pope, Bertone added: “Thank you for having given us the luminous example of the simple and humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.”

The conclave to decide the successor to Pope Benedict will start as early as March 15th, the Vatican said today.

The conclave, when cardinals gather to elect a new pope, will start between 15 and 20 days from when the papal seat is vacated on February 28th, Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi told a news conference.

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