Pope Benedict XVI gives final address

10:26 AM, Feb 27, 2013   |    comments
Pope Benedict XVI waves to pilgrims in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican/AP
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ROME -- More than 100,000 pilgrims gathered in St. Peter's Square, Rome, Wednesday to cheer as Pope Benedict XVI gave his final general audience before making history by being the first pope to resign office since the Middle Ages.

Addressing the crowd where many toted banners saying "Grazie!" ("Thank you!") the pope said, "I'd like to thank everybody for the help I have received." He said that he has experienced both joyful and difficult moments as pope.

Although the day appeared sunny and celebratory, a new series of controversial revelations swirls around the papacy, threatening to leave a mark on Benedict's eight-year papacy and adding to the challenges to be faced by the next pope.

Whoever succeeds him, Benedict said Wednesday, "will no longer have any privacy. He will belong forever and totally to everyone and to all the church."

He added that will remain true for him even after his abdication, which will take place barely 30 hours after his remarks Wednesday: "I am not abandoning the cross; I remain close to the crucified Lord in a new way," he said.

The faithful who were part of an overflow crowd in St. Peter's reflected a mix of sympathy for the plight of the 85-year-old pontiff's decision to step down for reasons of age and declining health, and frustration and sometimes anger toward the series of scandals that have come to light on Benedict's watch.

"I know he doesn't take the decision [to resign] lightly, and I pray for him and his mission," said Italo Batisti, 56, a church maintenance worker from Rome. "But I also don't understand how all these things happened. The church should be a place for prayer and reflection, not for denying allegations."

In the latest developments, Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien said he would not attend the conclave that will select the next pope while denying allegations of "inappropriate behavior" with priests in the 1980s.

A few days earlier, an Italian newspaper broke a story about a high-level investigation into a network of gay clergy working in the Vatican, possibly connected to documents leaked last year by Benedict's former butler, Paolo Gabriele, who the pope recently pardoned. The Vatican Bank has been touched with charges of money laundering and other scandals.

"The Holy Father is a good man, a holy man, but perhaps his age held him back from keeping tight enough control on what has been going on," said 71-year-old Pascal Venturi, a retired Italian police officer now living in Boston. "My religious faith is strong and I returned [to Rome] in part to say goodbye to the pope. But I am very frustrated by the lack of control over what takes place in the Vatican."

Benedict's address Wednesday was unusually personal, in contrast with the often scholarly discourses on issues of faith or international affairs that have generally characterize Benedict's Wednesday audiences.

STORY: STORY: Pope Benedict's address

He said he had "serene trust in God's will" in making the decision to leave not for his own good but for the good of the church, and he thanked the faithful for understanding his decision to resign.

Although he was known during his papacy as a shy scholar, Benedict appeared warmed by the massive crowds, kissing and blessing children on his final lap around the square, while adults cheered and cardinals wept.

"My heart is open to the world," the pope said. "I will continue to accompany the Church with my prayers.

"I am asking each of you to pray for me," he said.

The audience was the last time Benedict will officially address the public as pope. But observers may be able to catch a glimpse of him lat Thursday afternoon as he travels by helicopter to Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome, for several weeks of reflection before returning to the Vatican, where he is expected to live a cloistered life of prayer, writing, reading, and meditation.

The Vatican announced Tuesday that after leaving the papacy he will retain the name Benedict and will be referred to as "Roman pontiff emeritus." He will dress far more simply than he did as pope, using a plain white cassock, and he will give up the famous red shoes of the papacy, which the Vatican says, symbolize the blood of the martyrs. Benedict will wear brown shoes instead

Vatican press officials said that some 50,000 tickets had been issued for the audience, with at least that many more estimated to be gathered in the standing-room-only part of the square. Officials said it was among the largest audiences in St. Peter's Square of Benedict's papacy.

Once a new pope is elected, and Benedict returns to live within Vatican walls in retirement, it raising questions about having a reigning and a retired pope, living side-by-side. But the Vatican says it foresees no problems and Benedict has said he will pray and be "hidden to the world."

Pope Benedict XVI officially steps down Thursday at 8:00 p.m. local time. The date for the conclave, the process by which the next pope will be selected, has not yet been announced. it may be Monday before enough cardinals have gathered in Rome and begun meeting in advisory sessions before a date is announced.

Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard in London

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