Benedict XVI celebrated his final mass as Pope in St Peter’s Basilica yesterday, hours after making his first public appearance since announcing his intention to retire.
The Pope marked the foreheads of the faithful with ashes as part of Ash Wednesday mass, signalling the beginning of Lent.
The service was moved from the Santa Sabina Church on Rome’s Aventine Hill, where it is traditionally held, in order to accommodate the large crowds of well-wishers who flocked to see the first pontiff in 600 years to retire.
Looking tired, the 85-year-old Pope was wheeled down the central aisle as a choir sang, preceded by dozens of cardinals. During the homily he referred to his imminent resignation and asked to be kept in the public’s prayers.
Earlier in the day, Benedict XVI appeared in public for the first time since his shock resignation announcement on Monday when he attended his weekly audience in the Vatican.
He was greeted with a standing ovation from the thousands who had gathered in the Paul VI auditorium for the ticketed event and there were loud chants of “Benedetto”, while a banner, prominently displayed, read: “Thank you, Holiness.”
The Pope, who looked frail, insisted during his speech that his decision was “for the good of the Church” and asked the public to “keep praying for me, for the Church and for the future pope”.
He also sent his first tweet since the announcement which read: “During the season of Lent, which begins today, we renew our commitment to the path of conversion, making more room for God in our lives.”
Dressed in his traditional white cassock and skullcap, the Pope said he could feel the faithful’s love “almost physically in these difficult days”.
For the next two weeks, the Pope will continue with his existing engagements. Today, he will hold his annual meeting with the priests of Rome, as well as meeting both the presidents of Guatemala and Romania.
Next week, he will take part in a spiritual retreat in the Vatican which is also expected to be a hotbed of politicking as different groups within the College of Cardinals try to figure out the most appropriate successor to Benedict.
During the next two Sundays, Benedict XVI will also continue with tradition and appear at the window of his apartment to recite the Angelus.
He will hold his final general audience in St Peter’s Square On the 27 February, and the following day at 8pm he will leave the Vatican for the papal retreat of Castel Gandolfo where he is expected to stay until after the Conclave takes place to elect his successor.
However, there were signs that two popes might be one too many for the Vatican, even if one is retired. The National Catholic Reporter said yesterday that some cardinals are concerned that Benedict’s decision to remain in the Vatican could cast a shadow over the new pope with one source saying that it might be better for him to move to a monastery in Germany.
Meanwhile, Cardinal Peter Apiah Turkson of Ghana, one of the two African cardinals who are considered to be “papabile” – capable of being a pope – said he believed the world is now ready for an African pope.
In an interview with the Italian media, the cardinal, who is head of the Vatican’s secretariat of peace and justice, said: “Africa is an important continent for Catholicism, but so is Asia, for example. The Church is synonymous with universality. God’s will should be done.”