Edward Pentin reporting from Rome
Pope Benedict XVI greets Vatican Secretary of State cardinal Tarcisio Bertone as he leads the Ash Wednesday service. (Getty Images)
— Pope Benedict XVI received a long standing ovation this evening after giving his last public homily in St. Peter’s basilica.
At the Ash Wednesday Mass that marks the beginning of Lent, the thousands of people attending gave the Pope long applause with many, including some of his close aides, moved to tears.
The Pope thanked those present for their support and prayers; he stressed it is never too late to return to God and that community is needed to live a life of faith.
“The true disciple does not serve himself or the "public," but his Lord, in simplicity and generosity,” the Pope said. “[We] will always be more effective the less we seek our own glory and the more we are aware that the reward of the righteous is God Himself, to be united to Him, here, on a journey of faith, and at the end of life, in the peace light of coming face to face with him forever.”
In words of tribute to the Pope, his deputy, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said at the Mass that he and the rest of the world have feelings of “great emotion and profound respect” for Benedict XVI’s decision to renounce the papacy, while noting a “hint of sadness” in people’s hearts.
The Vatican Secretary of State spoke of the Pope’s “deep love” for the Church revealed in his “purity of mind, that robust faith, that strength of humility and meekness, along with great courage which marked every step of your life and your ministry, and that can only come from being with God.”
Earlier, during his weekly general audience, the Pope reassured pilgrims he had made the decision to resign: "in full freedom for the good of the Church” and that he decided to step down "after much prayer and having examined my conscience before God, knowing full well the seriousness of this act, but also realizing that I am no longer able to carry out the Petrine ministry with the strength which it demands."
The Pope made the statement for the benefit of those who may feel "confused by this situation," Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi told reporters this afternoon.
Father Lombardi then listed the Pope's remaining engagements before he steps down on Feb. 28th, most of which were already arranged before Monday's announcement.
Tomorrow, the Pope will hold a traditional audience with the clergy of Rome in the Paul VI Hall.
On Friday, he will have an audience with the President of Romania, Italian bishops and a Catholic aid organization.
On Saturday, the Pope will meet the President of Guatemala, followed by a meeting with more bishops among which will be Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan and a leading candidate to succeed Pope Benedict.
In the evening, the Pope will hold a private audience with Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti who will have just returned from a visit to the United States and is currently contesting a general election in Italy.
After reciting his usual Angelus prayer on Sunday, the Pope will not be seen in public until Feb. 23 since he will be attending the Vatican's annual Lenten retreat. He will then receive Italian President Giorgio Napolitano in private audience. The two men, who are roughly the same age, have a "deep appreciation" for one another, Lombardi said.
Pope Benedict XVI will give his final Angelus address on Sunday, Feb. 24.
On Monday, Feb. 25, he will meet some cardinals individually, while on Wednesday Feb. 27, he will give his last general audience in St. Peter's Square to accommodate the large number of faithful expected.
On his final day, Thursday Feb. 28, at 11 a.m. in the grand Clementine Hall in the Vatican, the Pope will say farewell to assembled cardinals. In the afternoon, at 5 p.m., he will depart by helicopter to Castel Gandolfo. The Pope will step down from the papacy at precisely 8 p.m., the usual time when the Pope's working day ends. From then on, the Church will be in a state of "sede vacante
" or vacant seat.
During today’s press conference, it emerged that at least one senior Vatican prelate had voiced concern that the Pope will retire to the Vatican (he is to reside in a monastery there), and so might interfere in the work of his successor. Asked if the Pope had consulted anyone about the move, Lombardi said he didn’t think he had asked anyone about his decision. “The decision-making process was very limited,” he said, but the spokesman added: “I have absolutely no concern, and I think it's a very wise solution for Pope Benedict XVI to remain in Vatican with his prayer, possibility of studying, and also to have personal contact.”
He added: “I think his successor and the cardinals will be very happy to have — very nearby — the person who best of all understands the spiritual needs of the Church, and the needs of the Successor of Peter. He is near, discreet, prays and will be a supportive influence, with his spiritual presence at the service of his successor, the Curia and the Church.”
Lombardi added that more details about the sede vacante period and the coming Conclave will be revealed next week. He also said that although the traditional eight days of mourning obviously won’t be taking place, time is still needed for cardinals to meet and reflect on the coming conclave, meaning that the conclave will most probably take place in mid to late March.
Edward Pentin began reporting on the Vatican as a correspondent with Vatican Radio in 2002. He has covered the Pope and the Holy See for a number of publications, including Newsweek, and The Sunday Times. Read more reports from Edward Pentin — Click Here Now.
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