THE pope has basked in an emotional send off at his final general audience in St Peter’s Square, recalling moments of “joy and light” but also times of great difficulty.
He also thanked his flock for respecting his decision to retire.
Tens of thousands of people toting banners saying “Grazie!” – “Thank you” – jammed the piazza in Rome to bid Benedict farewell and join the appointment he has kept each week for eight years to teach the world about the Catholic faith.
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.
In keeping with the historic moment, Benedict changed course and did not 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,” he 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.
During eight years, he said “I have had moments of joy and light, but also moments that haven’t been easy ... moments of turbulent seas and rough winds.”
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 could not get in picked spots along the main boulevard leading to the square to watch the event on giant TV screens.