Pope Benedict XVI's final day as head of the billion-strong Catholic Church is on Thursday. But the emotional send-off took place on Wednesday with his final general audience before a vast crowd of supporters gathered on St. Peter's Square at the Vatican.
"To love the church means also to have the courage to take difficult, painful decisions, always keeping the good of the church in mind, not oneself," the pope said in an address that was far more personal than the professorial lectures he often delivered on such occasions. Following his emotional address, the pope took a lap around the square in an open-sided car, blessing several children handed up to him by his secretary.
The atmosphere was a celebratory one, with many of those in the audience waving banners reading "Grazie" and "Thank you, your holiness!" The Vatican said that over 150,000 people flooded the square to witness the historic sight of a pope voluntarily stepping down from the papacy. Those who were unable to obtain a ticket for a spot on the square clogged the main boulevard leading to the Vatican to watch the event on giant television screens.
During his eight years as pope, Benedict said he "had moments of joy and light, but also moments that haven't been easy moments of turbulent seas and rough winds." His papacy was marked by numerous scandals, including repeated revelations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in several countries. The Vatileaks affair provided an additional test, with documents leaked to the press in 2012 shedding light on Vatican power struggles and alleged corruption. Benedict XVI has also been widely criticized for his strictly conservative stances on a number of social issues and on questions of doctrine.
'I Am Very Moved'
Elected on April 19, 2005, Joseph Ratzinger's papacy comes to an end on Thursday at 8:00 p.m. By then, he will be safely ensconced at his summer residence, the Castel Gondolfo south of Rome, where he is to be flown by helicopter at 5:00 p.m. on Thursday. He is to stay there for approximately two months before moving back to a monastery at the Vatican in Rome, which is currently being renovated. His extravagant papal wardrobe will be exchanged for a simple white cassock; his bright red shoes will also be an accoutrement of the past.
Benedict XVI surprised the world with his announcement earlier this month that he was stepping down, becoming the first to do so in more than half a millennium. At the time, he cited his age and infirmity, shortcomings that he revisited in his Wednesday address. "I took this step in the full knowledge of its gravity and rarity but with a profound serenity," he said. In response to the cheers from the square, he said "Thank you, I am very moved."
Several cardinals were also on hand for the address, which came ahead of the approaching conclave that will decide on Benedict's replacement. The exact date for the beginning of the conclave has not yet been chosen, but the Vatican is hoping to have a new pope elected and installed by Palm Sunday on March 24 so that he can preside over Easter ceremonies.