Pope Benedict XVI bid an emotional farewell at his last general audience Wednesday. This is the first time since the Middle Ages that a Pope knew for certain an audience would be his last. The Pope is stepping down Thursday. No Pope has resigned in the last 600 years.
150,000 bid emotional farewell
The Pope told the 150,000 people crammed into St. Peter’s Square that he understood the gravity of his decision, but he did it “for the good of the Roman Catholic Church”. Benedict said his papacy included moments of joy but also difficulty when "It seemed like the Lord was sleeping...There were moments when the waters were choppy and there were headwinds," he added.
The Pope entered the Square in his Popemobile affording many a closer final glimpse of their Pontiff. Sitting on the steps of St Peter's Basilica the pontiff gave a final prayer and blessing and address the assembled faithful, as well as Catholics around the world.
"I took this step in the full knowledge of its gravity and rarity but with a profound serenity of spirit...Loving the Church meant having the courage to take difficult and anguished choices, always having in mind the good of the church and not oneself," he added. “I am not stepping down from the cross...There are different ways to serve...I see the Church as very alive.”
The Pope was applauded frequently by the crowd which included a group of Cardinals who will pick his successor. Most of those in the square were supportive and praised Benedict who appeared frail.
"He did what he had to do in his conscience before God," said Sister Carmela a Nun from a city north of Rome, who came with her fellow nuns and members of her parish. "This is a day in which we are called to trust in the Lord, a day of hope," she told NBC. "There is no room for sadness here today. We have to pray, there are many problems in the Church but we have to trust in the Lord."
Many Catholics were stunned by his decision, however, and concerned about the impact it will have on a Church torn by divisions. Some remain critical of the Pope and were pleased that he resigned. “He was a disaster. It's good for everyone that he resigned," said Peter McNamara, 61, an Australian of Irish descent who said he had come to the square "to witness history".
Catholic Church struggling with many issues
The Catholic Church is still struggling with the sexual abuse scandal that many accuse Pope Benedict of ignoring before he ascended to the papacy. The Church is divided over many policies that many Catholics feel are not appropriate in the modern world. These include the prohibition against the ordination of women and the policy forbidding priests to marry.
In addition, many Catholics strongly disagree with the Church’s position on contraception. This rule is often ignored by American and European Catholics, but in developing countries, this ban has been blamed for exploding populations that keep many in abject poverty. It is also seen as an obstacle in eradicating HIV in poor nations.
The new Pope will need to deal with all these issues and he will also be forced to contend with conspiracy theories, rumors, and news stories that the Pope’s resignation was not tendered because of failing health. The Vatican Banking scandal is fertile ground for intrigue especially in light of recent Hollywood movies based in fiction but mistakenly seen by many as documentaries
The Pope will retire at a villa South of Rome and is not likely to be seen much by the public in his final days. His successor will be elected sometime between Friday and Palm Sunday. This is uncharted territory since this is the first Conclave to elect a Pope while the former pontiff is still living.
The whole world will be watching. The stakes are high since there are over one billion Catholics in the world.