VATICAN CITY (RNS) In his first public comments since his surprise retirement announcement, Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday (Feb. 13) asked Catholics for support and prayers to support him "in these days which are not easy for me."
As he does every Wednesday morning, Benedict presided over the weekly general audience in the Vatican, speaking in front of around 3,500 faithful and tourists.
But before broaching the topic of Lent and Jesus' temptations in his brief Ash Wednesday talk, the 85-year old pontiff tried to explain his decision to become the first pope in 600 years to step down from the papacy.
Benedict said he had felt "almost physically" the strength of prayers to support him in recent days, and asked believers to pray for him, for the church and for his successor.
Looking emotional but in good health, the pontiff said he took the decision to resign "in full freedom" and "for the good of the church."
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."
Benedict stressed that, in taking the historic step, he was supported by the "certainty that the church belongs to Christ, who will never stop guiding it and caring for it."
Later on Wednesday, dozens of cardinals and archbishops, together with priests, nuns and Vatican diplomats flocked to St. Peter's Basilica for Benedict's last Vatican Mass before his retirement.
While the pontiff only passingly referred to his resignation in the Ash Wednesday rite, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's Secretary of State, acknowledged the church's "sadness" in an address to Benedict.
"We have all understood that Your Holiness acted out of love for God and for the Church," he said as the pontiff looked on the verge of tears.
Wednesday's rites will be among Benedict's last public events before he steps down on Feb. 28.
According to the Vatican's chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, Benedict will keep his usual schedule in his final two weeks as pope, including meetings with visiting bishops and heads of state.
On Thursday, Benedict will meet with Rome's clergy, a traditional papal appointment during Lent.
Benedict has granted special audiences to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, with whom he forged a strong relationship in past years, and to outgoing Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, who is currently engaged in Italy's bitter electoral campaign ahead of general elections later this month.
The pope will also attend a Vatican spiritual retreat from Feb. 17-23 before presiding at the Wednesday general audience on Feb. 27, his last public appearance as pope. "We are expecting on a large turnout," Lombardi said.
On his last day as pope, Feb. 28, Benedict will meet cardinals for a farewell audience in the Vatican before flying by helicopter to the papal villa in Castel Gandolfo, outside of Rome, where he will stay as the cardinals chose his successor.
According to Lombardi, church law states that a conclave should be held 15 to 20 days after the end of the previous pontificate. "Cardinals must reflect and gather information in order to be prepared when the conclave arrives," he said.
Benedict's future status features prominently among the unresolved issues the Church faces in the coming weeks.
His title as former pope, his place of residence, down to the color of the vests he will wear, "are not trivial questions, as they have a symbolic and juridical significance that must be taken into account," Lombardi admitted.
For full coverage of Pope Benedict's resignation, click here.
BEFORE YOU GO
02/12/2013 10:45 PM EST
Pope's Brother Says Benedict XVI Won't Return Home
REGENSBURG, Germany — Pope Benedict XVI is planning to stay out of the public eye following his retirement at the end of the month but may stand ready to advise his successor if asked, his brother said Tuesday after talking with the pontiff.
Speaking to reporters at his home in the southern German city of Regensburg, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, who was ordained on the same day in 1951 as his brother Joseph, said he didn't expect Benedict's continued presence in the Vatican to intimidate the next pope.
Continue reading here.
02/12/2013 9:46 PM EST
The Latest Betting Line On The Next Pope
Keith Thomson writes in a blog post:
Much is at stake with the selection of Pope Benedict XVI's successor, including a lot of money. Paddy Power, Europe's largest bookmaker, has already taken more than £100,000 in bets, and expects to see multi-million-pound action closer to next month's conclave at the Sistine Chapel.
While Las Vegas casinos refuse to accept such bets for reasons of "taste," Paddy Power is one of several major international bookmakers currently offering papal markets, not only on who will be the next pope, but what papal name he'll choose, his country of origin, and the length of the papal conclave, among others.
Continue reading here.
02/12/2013 6:09 PM EST
Topless Feminists Hail Pope Benedict's Resignation
A group of topless activists scandalized visitors at Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral on Tuesday by disrobing in public to celebrate Pope Benedict XVI's resignation.
The small group of women, all affiliated with radical feminist group FEMEN, flashed their breasts and banged on bells in the cathedral, shouting slogans such as, "Bye Bye Benedict" and "No more homophobe," according to the Agence France-Presse.
Continue reading here.
02/12/2013 6:06 PM EST
With Pope Benedict's Resignation, Gay Rights Advocates Hope For Change
HuffPost's Lila Shapiro reports:
Jeannine Gramick, a Roman Catholic nun and co-founder of a U.S. ministry for gay and lesbian Catholics, met Pope Benedict XVI only once, by chance, on a plane flying from Baltimore to Rome in the late-'90s. Because of her work with the lesbian and gay community, Gramick had by then been under investigation by the Vatican for more than two decades.
The encounter was serendipitous, Gramick recalled Monday after hearing news of Benedict's resignation. Gramick and leaders at her ministry had been worried that she would be excommunicated. She was traveling with the head of her order to Munich, via Rome, to pray that she would keep her place in the church. When she boarded the plane, she saw Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became pope, sitting with two empty seats beside him. She mustered her courage and sat next to him. "When he found out who I was, he just smiled and said 'Oh, I've known about you for 20 years,'" she said.
Continue reading here.
02/12/2013 5:52 PM EST
Nuns Pray Inside St. Peter's Basilica
Nuns pray inside St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013. With a few words in Latin, Pope Benedict XVI did what no pope has done in more than half a millennium, stunning the world by announcing his resignation Monday and leaving the already troubled Catholic Church to replace the leader of its 1 billion followers by Easter. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
02/12/2013 5:24 PM EST
Vatican Plans Big Send-Off For Pope Benedict XVI
VATICAN CITY, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Cardinals around the world began informal contacts to discuss who should next lead the Church through a period of major crisis and the Vatican said it planned a big send-off for Pope Benedict before he becomes the first pontiff in centuries to resign.
At a Tuesday news conference on how the pope plans to spend the next two weeks before he steps out of the limelight, the Vatican also disclosed that the 85-year-old Benedict has been wearing a pacemaker since before he was elected pope in 2005.
Continue reading here.
02/12/2013 5:10 PM EST
Cardinal Seán O'Malley, OFM, Cap: Pope Benedict Was Committed To Ensure Abuse Would Not Be Repeated
Yesterday morning the Church and the world learned that Pope Benedict XVI, following an extended period of prayer and reflection, discerned that he would resign the papacy at the end of this month. This news certainly came as a great surprise to all of us. It would be reasonable to consider that the Holy Father's advancing age and the responsibilities of being the leader for more than one billion Catholics, including the demands of extensive international travel, played a central role in his decision. We join the universal Church in offering prayerful gratitude for the Holy Father's faith, courage and his leadership as the successor of Peter.
At this time it is appropriate for the Church and all people of good faith to reflect on Pope Benedict's legacy and achievements. He brought unique capabilities to the papacy as a highly qualified scholar and teacher, and as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in service to Blessed John Paul II. His fidelity to maintaining the truth and clarity of the Catholic faith, to cultivating ecumenical and interfaith dialogue and in reaching out to inspire the next generation of Catholics have been great gifts to us all.
During the course of the past eight years Pope Benedict embraced the papacy with the heart of a kind and caring shepherd, always holding the spiritual and pastoral care of the people of God to be the highest priority. The Holy Father also generously used his superior intellectual gifts, well established through his reputation as a renowned scholar, to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Church with people from all walks of life throughout the world. He guided the Church through unprecedented challenges, always finding strength in Jesus' promise to be with us always, and led a world-wide renewal of evangelization that will influence the Catholicism for generations to come.
The Archdiocese of Boston in particular has been greatly blessed by Pope Benedict's care and concern.In all of my conversations with him he has always asked me to assure this local Church of his prayers and encouragement. I will always hold the Holy Father's 2008 meeting with survivors of clergy sexual abuse, and our presentation of the Book of Names of living and deceased survivors, as one of the most powerful experiences of my life and priesthood.
His overwhelming sorrow that such heinous crimes were perpetrated on the survivors and his heartfelt expression of love and concern were deeply moving, as was his absolute commitment that the abuse never be repeated and that the Church maintain her vigilance to do everything possible to insure the safety of children.
While there will be much speculation in the days and weeks ahead regarding who will follow the Holy Father to the Chair of Peter, at this moment we are called to reflect on Pope Benedict's leadership; offering prayers of gratitude for this servant of Christ who so dearly loves all of God's people. At this extraordinary moment in the life of the Church, we pray for the wisdom and grace of the Holy Spirit and the strength given by our Lord, who, assures us that he will be with us always.
02/12/2013 4:58 PM EST
Cardindal Francis Arinze: 'We Know You Have Done This For The Love Of The Church'
Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for Divine Worship, releases a statement:
02/12/2013 3:17 PM EST
The Monastery Where The Pope Is Expected To Live After He Resigns
A view of the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery, right, next to the Tower of San Giovanni, inside the Vatican State where Pope Benedict XVI is expected to live after he resigns, on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013. For months, construction crews have been renovating a four-story building attached to a monastery on the northern edge of the Vatican gardens where nuns would live for a few years at a time in cloister. Only a handful of Vatican officials knew it would one day be Pope Benedict XVI's retirement home. On Tuesday, construction materials littered the front lawn of the house and plastic tubing snaked down from the top floor to a dump truck as the restoration deadline became ever more critical following Benedict's stunning announcement that he would resign Feb. 28 and live his remaining days in prayer. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
02/12/2013 3:15 PM EST
FEMEN Protest Against Pope Benedict XVI
Activists of the Women's Movement FEMEN, protest against the Pope Benedict XVI who announced his resignation yesterday, in Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)