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
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.
Pope Benedict stunned the Church on Monday when he announced the first papal abdication in centuries. Fr Lombardi said Catholics should not be disoriented by Pope Benedict's decision.
In his first public comments since he announced that he would become the first pontiff in centuries to resign, Pope Benedict today 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.
The pope, who looked and sounded strong, was interrupted several times by thunderous applause from the some 8,000 faithful and tourists who packed the vast audience hall.
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 the church consisted of 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.
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".