Pope Benedict XVI will make his last public appearanc Wednesday before becoming the first Roman Catholic pontiff in six centuries to abdicate as the Vatican struggles to stem a wave of controversy.
The German-born Benedict, 85, will deliver his address to a general audience at 10:30 a.m. in St. Peter’s Square, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said at a briefing yesterday. He’ll make a “longer than usual” tour of the 17th-century square in the “Popemobile” for a final blessing before becoming the first pope tomorrow to desert office since Gregory XII in 1415.
“Everyone was dismayed when we heard his decision” to retire, Cardinal Agostino Vallini, who runs the diocese of Rome on behalf of the pope, told Vatican Radio yesterday in an interview. Romans “feel such a special affection for the pope that they won’t miss his last public act. The square will be full of people from all over Rome and all over the world.”
Benedict’s last public address comes as cardinals gather in Rome to decide when to start the secret conclave to elect his successor amid scandals over clerical sex abuse and Vatican intrigue. The pope used a Feb. 13 sermon to speak out about the church’s “sometimes disfigured face” and a Feb. 23 message to the Curia to lament the “evil, suffering and corruption” that has defaced the centuries-old institution.
Italian media alleged last week that a secret internal probe into the leaking of papal documents detailed a network of sex and graft inside the Vatican. Lombardi has said the reports “don’t correspond to reality.” The pope met two days ago with the cardinals who led the investigation.
The resignation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Britain’s top Catholic cleric, was accepted by the pope this week after allegations of his “inappropriate” conduct toward priests. He denied wrongdoing but won’t attend the conclave. Cardinal Roger Mahony, the former Los Angeles archbishop, said he’ll attend the secret vote even after U.S. court documents showed he played a role in covering up sex abuse by priests.
The pope announced Feb. 11 he would leave office because he lacked the physical and mental strength to lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. He will greet cardinals tomorrow before flying by helicopter to the papal summer residence in the hills south of Rome.
Benedict will return to a Vatican convent in two months to live out his days in prayer. His papal fisherman’s ring and official seal will be destroyed, while in retirement his title will be “pope emeritus” or “Roman pontiff emeritus,” Lombardi said.
Two days ago, the pope issued a decree to allow the cardinals to bring forward the start of the conclave, which is widely expected to begin in the second week of March. Lombardi said cardinals will probably gather right after the weekend to decide on a date for the conclave.
The gathering will take place in the Sistine Chapel, under Michelangelo’s fresco of God breathing life into Adam, after the chapel has been swept for security breaches, Lombardi said. The decree, or “motu proprio” in Latin, also made the conclave’s secrecy rules stricter, with any violation punishable by automatic excommunication, according to the document.
The pope’s final appearance today won’t include the traditional “baciamano,” or kissing of the hands of the faithful, as “too many people would want one on the pope’s last day,” Lombardi said.
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