Pope recalls ‘joy,’ difficulties in final audience

VATICAN CITY (AP) – Pope Benedict XVI bid an emotional farewell
Wednesday to his flock on the eve of his retirement, recalling in his
final speech as pontiff moments of “joy and light” during his papacy but
also times of difficulty when “it seemed like the Lord was sleeping.”

An estimated 150,000 people flooded St. Peter's
Square for Benedict's last general audience, eager to show their support
and bear witness to the final hours of a papacy that will go down in
history as the first one in 600 years to end in resignation rather than

Benedict clearly enjoyed the occasion, taking a
long victory lap around the square in an open-sided car and stopping to
kiss and bless half a dozen babies and infants handed to him by his
secretary. Seventy cardinals, some tearful, sat in solemn attendance –
then gave him a standing ovation at the end of his speech.

Benedict then made a quick exit, foregoing the
typical meet-and-greet session that follows the audience as if to not
prolong the goodbye.

Given the historic moment, Benedict also eschewed
his typical professorial Wednesday catechism lesson and instead gave a
personal, heartfelt final address, explaining once again why he was
retiring but assuring his flock of 1.2 billion that he was not
abandoning them.

“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 noted that a pontiff has no privacy – neither as
pope, nor in his future role as emeritus pope: “He belongs always and
forever to everyone, to the whole church.”

During his eight years as pope, Benedict said he
had had “moments of joy and light, but also moments that haven't been
easy … moments of turbulent seas and rough winds, as has occurred in
the history of the church when it seemed like the Lord was sleeping.”

But he said he never felt alone, that God always
guided him, and he thanked his cardinals and colleagues for their
support and for “understanding and respecting this important decision.”

The pope's tenure has been beset by the clerical
sex abuse scandal, discord over everything from priestly celibacy to
women's ordination, and most recently the betrayal by his own butler who
stole his private papers and leaked them to a journalist.

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. About 50,000 tickets were requested for
Benedict's final master class. In the end, the Vatican estimated that
150,000 people flocked to the farewell.

“It's difficult – the emotion is so big,” said Jan
Marie, a 53-year-old Roman in his first years as a seminarian. “We came
to support the pope's decision.”

With chants of “Benedetto!” erupting 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.

“I have taken this step with the full understanding
of the seriousness and also novelty of the decision, but with a
profound serenity in my soul,” Benedict told the crowd.

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.

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.

Many of the cardinals who will choose Benedict's
successor were in St. Peter's Square for his final audience. Those
included retired Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, the object of a
grass-roots campaign in the U.S. to persuade him to recuse himself for
having covered up for sexually abusive priests. Mahony has said he will
be among the 115 cardinals voting for the next pope.

“God bless you,” Mahony said when asked by television crews about the campaign.

Also in attendance Wednesday were cardinals over
80, who can't participate in the conclave but will participate in
meetings next week to discuss the problems facing the church and the
qualities needed in a new pope.

“I am joining the entire church in praying that the
cardinal electors will have the help of the Holy Spirit,” Spanish
Cardinal Julian Herranz, 82, said.

Herranz has been authorized by the pope to brief
voting-age cardinals on his investigation into the leaks of papal
documents that exposed corruption in the Vatican administration.

Vatican officials say cardinals will begin meeting Monday to decide when to set the date for the conclave.

But the rank-and-file faithful in the crowd weren't
so concerned with the future; they wanted to savor the final moments
with the pope they have known for years.

“I came to thank him for the testimony that he has
given the church,” said Maria Cristina Chiarini, a 52-year-old homemaker
who traveled by train from Lugo in central Italy with about 60 members
of her parish. “There's nostalgia, human nostalgia, but also comfort,
because as Christians we have hope. The Lord won't leave us without a

Copyright 2013 The
Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be
published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Categories: KUSI