Pope Benedict XVI gave the final Sunday benediction of his pontificate on February 24 to crowds assembled in St. Peter's Square. To cheering crowds, the 85-year-old pontiff explained that because of his age, he is better suited to a life of prayer in a monastery rather than as leader of the world's Catholics. On February 28, Pope Benedict will become the first Pope to have resigned his seat in six centuries. "God is asking me to serve in a way more appropriate to my age and strength," said the pope at the traditional Sunday recitation of the Angelus.
The appearance at his balcony overlooking the historic St. Peter's Square is his penultimate appearance before the public in the nearly eight years he has been Pope. As many as 100,000 people have requested seats in the square to receive the bestowal of his final blessing that will come on February 27.
On February 24, approximately 100,000 people crowded into the iconic colonnaded square. He was greeted by shouts and banners, and thunderous applause, when he told pilgrims that he had been called to dedicate himself "even more to prayer and meditation." Currently, a monastery is being renovated within the Vatican City's fortified walls to receive him this week. Pilgrims waved their national flags, while Brazil was very well represented. Some other held placards apparently advocating for three Italian cardinals as candidates to succeed Benedict. Thousands cheered 'Long live the Pope', in Italian, Spanish and Portuguese.
Acknowledging the sadness expressed by pilgrims about his coming seclusion, Pope Benedict said "But this doesn't mean abandoning the church," adding "On the contrary, if God asks me, this is because I can continue to serve it (the church) with the same dedication and the same love which I have tried to do so until now, but in a way more suitable to my age and to my strength." LIsteners indicated that the pope ad-libbed the phrase "tried to" while speaking from the prepared text.
Benedict smiled broadly to the assembled crowd when an aide parted the white curtain at his window. He then conveyed greetings in several languages and acknowledged the "gratitude, affection and closeness in prayer" received from admirers ever since he stunned the Church and its 1.2 billion members with his February 11 renunciation of the papacy.
"Prayer is not isolating oneself from the world and its contradictions," Benedict told pilgrims in St. Peter's Square. He noted that he was heeding God's call to prayer, "which gives breath to our spiritual life" in a special way "at this moment of my life."
Observers noted that the heavens appeared to cooperate in allowing Benedict to address as many as possible. Despite heavy rain forecast for Rome, there was only some early-morning light drizzle. When the Pope appeared, and church bells began to peal, a cloudless blue sky elevated spirits in the crowded square.
"We thank God for the sun he has given us," the pope said.
A conclave of cardinals will meet soon to decided who will take over the See of Peter, filling in the very large fisherman's shoes left behind by predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI. For centuries, Italians dominated the papacy until the election of John Paul II from Poland, followed by Benedict XVI from Germany. in 2005.
In a tweet on February 23, Pope Benedict wrote in English, "In these momentous days, I ask you to pray for me and for the church, trusting as always in divine providence."