THE banners fluttered in the sunshine and declared in a single word a simple sentiment, one shared by the vast crowd of people in St Peter’s Square: “Grazie!”
The sunset of the papacy of Benedict XVI, the first pope in six centuries to retire, was played out in blinding sunshine but as the aged pontiff said of the past eight years, there were “turbulent seas” and at times “it seemed like the Lord was sleeping”.
In a reference to the scandals that beset the Church during his time as leader of 1.2 billion Catholics – such as sexual abuse and leaked documents revealing Vatican corruption – Benedict said: “I have 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.”
An estimated 150,000 people jammed the piazza to bid Benedict farewell and hear his last speech as pontiff. In this final weekly appointment, which he has kept for eight years, Benedict gave deep thanks to his flock for respecting his decision to retire.
The Pope clearly enjoyed the crowds, taking a long “victory lap” around the square in his popemobile, whose registration is SCV1 for Santa Citta del Vaticano (Holy Vatican City).
The car stopped a number of times to allow him to kiss and bless half a dozen children.
However, afterwards Benedict made a quick exit, foregoing the typical meet-and-greet session that follows the audience.
Given the historic moment, Benedict also changed course and did not give his typical professorial Wednesday catechism lesson. Rather, he made his final public appearance in St Peter’s a personal one, explaining once again why he was becoming the first pope in 600 years to resign.
He said: “To love the Church means to have the courage to take difficult, painful decisions, always keeping the good of the Church in mind, not oneself.”
He noted that a pope has no privacy: “He belongs always and forever to everyone, to the whole Church.”
But he promised that in retirement he would not be returning to private life – instead taking on a new experience of service to the Church through prayer.
He recalled that when he was elected in 2005, he questioned whether he truly wanted it. “It’s a great burden that you’ve placed on my shoulders,” he recalled telling God.
But he said he never felt alone, that God always guided him.
Under a bright sun and blue skies, the square was overflowing with the faithful and the curious. Some 50,000 tickets were requested for Benedict’s final masterclass.
He has said he decided to retire after realising that, at 85, he did not have the “strength of mind or body” to carry on. He told the crowd: “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.”
He said he was not “coming down off the cross” to enjoy a retirement attending conferences but would remain in the service of the Church through prayer.
As the crowd broke into chants of “Benedetto, Benedetto”, he said: “I will continue to accompany the Church with my prayers, and I ask each of you to pray for me and the new pope.”
The crowd was made up overwhelmingly of the Catholic faithful and included priests, nuns and monks in cassocks.
“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.”
For Ed Smith, 30, a bar manager from Harrogate, it was a lucky coincidence. He said: “We were on holiday in Rome, but because of what happened with the resignation, we knew we had to be here today. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“Hopefully his resignation will move the Church forward with the election of someone who will take steps towards female priests or the acceptance that gays do exist in the world.”
Many of the crowd had concern for the Pope’s health and commented on how fragile he looked. Ilda De Fatima, 36, from Angola, said: “Seeing him now, his decision doesn’t seem strange – he looks really tired.”
But the mood yesterday was far more buoyant than during the Pope’s final Sunday blessing and it recalled the jubilant turnouts that often accompanied him at World Youth Days and events involving his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.
The Pope’s feeling about his final appearance was summed up by a close friend. Archbishop Robert Zollitsch said: “On the one hand, I felt that since the decision that he would leave office became public, Pope Benedict is relieved. But he also now feels the sympathy of the people for him, and therefore he will have a sense of melancholy and nostalgia, a bit of sadness.”
Benedict will meet cardinals today for a final time, while his personal archive of documents is packed up. At 4pm he will fly by helicopter to the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome. There, at 8pm, 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.
He will be left in the care of his butler, two secretaries and four memores, the laywomen who have taken care of him for years.
The cardinals will begin meeting on Monday to decide when to set the date for the conclave.
In St Peter’s Square yesterday, Maria Cristina Chiarini, a 52-year-old housewife who travelled from central Italy with 60 members of her parish, said: “There’s nostalgia but also comfort, because we have hope.
“The Lord won’t leave us without a guide.”