VATICAN CITY (KDKA/AP) – Pope Benedict XVI basked in an emotional sendoff Wednesday at his final general audience in St. Peter’s Square, recalling moments of “joy and light” during his papacy but also times of great difficulty. He also thanked his flock for respecting his decision to retire.
It is estimated that 150,000 people packed St. Peter’s Square, many toting banners saying “Grazie!” – “Thank you” – to bid Benedict farewell and join the appointment he has kept each week for eight years to teach the world about the Catholic faith.
According to KYW-TV’s Pat Ciarrocchi, the Pope recalled the joy and the light of his papacy, but also the difficult times and his ailing health, which ultimately led to his resignation.
He said he believed it was time for a younger man to lead the Catholic Church into the future.
“I think he’s left a wonderful point for us,” Rosemarie Friel, of Pittsburgh, said of the Pope. “I think he’s a wonderful person.”
Benedict clearly enjoyed the crowds, taking a long victory lap around the square in an open-sided car and stopping to kiss and bless half a dozen children handed to him by his secretary.
He said when he looked out onto the people who were gathered, he saw a church that was alive.
In keeping with the historic moment, Benedict changed course and didn’t produce his typical professorial Wednesday catechism lesson. Rather, he made his final public appearance in St. Peter’s a personal one, explaining once again why he was becoming the first pope in 600 years to resign and urging the faithful to pray for his successor.
“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,” Benedict said to thundering applause.
He recalled that when he was elected pope on April 19, 2005, he questioned if God truly wanted it. “‘It’s a great burden that you’ve placed on my shoulders,’” he recalled telling God.
But he said he never felt alone and thanked his cardinals and colleagues for their guidance and for “understanding and respecting this important decision.”
Under a bright sun and blue skies, the square was overflowing with pilgrims and curiosity-seekers. Those who couldn’t get in picked spots along the main boulevard leading to the square to watch the event on giant TV screens. Some 50,000 tickets were requested for Benedict’s final master class, but Italian media estimated the number of people actually attending could be double that.
With chants of “Benedetto!” erupting every so often, the mood was far more buoyant than during the pope’s final Sunday blessing. It recalled the jubilant turnouts that often accompanied him at World Youth Days and events involving his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.
Benedict has said he decided to retire after realizing that, at 85, he simply didn’t have the “strength of mind or body” to carry on. He will meet Thursday morning with cardinals for a final time, then fly by helicopter to the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo south of Rome.
I could see him tire,” said Pat Koroly, of Pittsburgh. “I could see a lot of the things internally in the church were wearing on him.”
Pope Benedict XVI will stay at Castel Gandolfo for about two weeks, while his apartment inside Vatican City is set up. The apartment is believed to be in a monastery.
There, at 8 p.m., the doors of the palazzo will close and the Swiss Guards in attendance will go off duty, their service protecting the head of the Catholic Church over – for now.
The focus will soon shift to the election of a new pope. Most of the 115 cardinals from around the world were in attendance and will meet with Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday.
Information about when the conclave will convene could be revealed as soon as Monday.