Pope Benedict: I am not abandoning the church

Pope greets crowd as he arrives to lead final Angelus at Vatican (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Benedict greets the crowd in St. Peter’s Square as he arrives to lead his final Angelus at the Vatican (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY — In one of his last public appearances, Pope Benedict XVI told an overflow crowd in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday that his upcoming retirement does not mean he is abandoning the church, but that he will be serving it in a new way, through prayer and meditation.

At noon the pope appeared at his window in the Apostolic Palace to pray the Angelus, a papal Sunday ritual that will not be repeated until after the election of a new pope.

Despite the blustery weather, turnout was several times the usual for such occasions — easily over 150,000, with some estimates as high as a quarter of a million. The crowd filled the Square except where prevented by barricades, and spilled out into the Via della Conciliazione. Many groups held signs expressing gratitude and affection — “You are not alone,” one read — and national flags from countries as far away as Brazil.

“Prayer doesn’t mean isolating one’s self from the world and its contradictions,” the pope said, “prayer leads one back to the path, to action.

“Christian existence,” he said, “consists in a continuous climbing of the mountain for an encounter with God, in order to descend again bearing the love and strength derived from it, so as to serve our brothers and sisters with the same love of God.”

If the relevance to his Feb. 28 resignation was not already clear, the Pope made the connection explicit:

I feel that this word of God is directed in particular to me, in this moment of my life. The Lord calls me to “climb the mountain,” to dedicate myself even more to prayer and meditation. But this does not mean abandoning the church, on the contrary, if God asks this of me it is precisely so that I may continue to serve (the church) with the same dedication and the same love with which I have done so till now, but in a way more suited to my age and strength.

Speaking these words, Pope Benedict was interrupted twice by applause, and afterwards received an ovation 30 seconds long. He smiled broadly, thanked the crowd, and added: “Let us thank God for the bit of sun he has granted us.”

The long goodbye — in St. Peter’s Square

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Selling copies of the Italian Catholic daily, Avvenire, in front of St. Peter’s Square.
(CNS photo/Carol Glatz)

VATICAN CITY — Italian authorities estimated that perhaps as many as 200,000 people turned out for Pope Benedict’s last public Angelus address today with people gathered in St. Peter’s Square. The square was already full when I squeezed my way in at 11:15, almost an hour before the pope was scheduled to appear.

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Damien McDonnell came to Rome with family and friends for the Year of Faith and to say goodbye to the pope. (CNS photo/Carol Glatz)

There were flags from dozens of countries as well as hand-made signs saying “You are not alone” and giant banners saying “Thank you, Holy Father.”

The pope was interrupted a number of times by spontaneous applause, cheers and chants of “Long live the pope!”

Damien McDonnell from the Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin in Ireland was leading a six-person family pilgrimage to Rome to celebrate the Year of Faith. He was one of several people who talked to CNS about this historic moment.

This is a blessing for us that we were able to come and say goodbye. (Pope Benedict’s) writings are so phenomenal and my first thought (upon hearing he was resigning) was ‘Please don’t stop writing!’ His work is so important for us and the for the church today…The next pope needs to be, to an extent, conservative, to say it like it is and not be indecisive, afraid to make decisions. Pope Benedict wasn’t afraid to make decisions and the new pope needs to  follow the same line.

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Hrvoje Mravak is in Rome studying for the priesthood. (CNS photo/Carol Glatz)

Hrvoje Mravak from Croatia is studying theology in Rome as he pursues a vocation with the Society of Jesus.

I am very grateful to the pope for what he has done. He is a great theologian who always highlighted the importance of prayer. I like his humility and, in his mind, his resigning is the best thing for the church. We are praying for him and the new pope. (The new pope) should adhere to doctrine, of course, he should be open to the many cultures in the world, be a man of prayer, a good communicator, and humble and spiritual.

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The Aguirre family from San Francisco took off work to be able to say goodbye. (CNS photo/Carol Glatz)

The Aguirre family (one brother and two sisters) from Our Lady of Mercy parish in Daly City near San Francisco took off work to come to Rome for the pope’s last week as the head of the universal church. Balthazar said the thing he will miss most about Pope Benedict is how he was able to be “the rock: solid, strong and unwavering and yet kind and compassionate and loving at the same time.”

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US pilgrims hold the flag in St. Peter’s Square after Pope Benedict’s last Sunday Angelus. (CNS photo/Carol Glatz)

Maria Rosario Aguirre said:

He’s stepping down not because he doesn’t love us, but because he is aware of his age and is prepared to hand the job down to another younger person. I think (his retirement) will be a second vocation for him. He will have a hidden life that won’t be public, but his prayers will be a great help to the whole world. We won’t see him, but he will still have a real presence and impact.

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The pope addressed an estimated 200,000 people in St. Peter’s Square for his last public Angelus. (CNS photo/Carol Glatz).

Simone Rascioni of the Diocese of Rome said she thought the pope’s request for prayers from the faithful “was very beautiful. He’s like a father asking his children for support.”

During his pontificate, he gave  me serenity. I saw him as being a very peaceful person, a man of truth who guides people along a clear path with — as a German — his logical  rationale. He was able to be so sure of himself because he is a man of prayer, knowing that God was behind him.

When asked about the furor in the Italian press over claims of corruption and scandal within the Vatican, Simone said:

We are all human and people can make mistakes. Instead of criticizing, we need to pray, that’s the responsibility of a person of faith. It doesn’t mean deny or hide from the mistakes, but criticism only destroys. We need to see the truth and build anew starting with prayer. Pope Benedict is an example of this when he asked forgiveness (for the sexual abuse of children by clergy). We also have to remember and recognize there are lots of very good people in the church. Nobody notices or thanks them, the only thing that makes the news is when someone makes a mistake.

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Mexican pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square. (CNS photo/Carol Glatz).

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Religious sisters proudly wave their nations’ flags in St. Peter’s Square. (CNS photo/Carol Glatz).

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An empty papal apartment window. (CNS photo/Carol Glatz).

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