In his final public address before his stunning resignation, Pope Benedict XVI reviewed his eight years as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, admitting he endured some “rough waters” but felt comforted by the presence of God throughout his term.
“Eight years later, I can say that the Lord has guided me," the chief prelate said, speaking before tens of thousands of pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. "He has been close to me. I have felt his presence every day.”
Then he made a reference to the biblical story of when the apostles faced huge waves in the waters of Galilee before Jesus Christ appeared before them.
“It has been a stretch of the Church's path that has had moments of joy and light, but also difficult moments,” the holy father said. “I felt like St. Peter and the apostles in the boat on the Sea of Galilee. The Lord has given us many days of sunshine and light breezes, days when the fishing was plentiful, but also times when the water was rough and the winds against us, just as throughout the whole history of the church, when the Lord seemed to be sleeping. But I always knew that the Lord is in that boat, and I always knew that the boat of the church is not mine, not ours, but is his.”
The Pope was likely refereeing to a number of crises the church has endured during his reign (and will continue to confront), including a seemingly endless array of reports of sexual abuse by priests of children and others across the world, as well as leaks of apparent intrigues and corruption within the Vatican itself.
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He also explained that his decision to quit was not easy.
“In these last months, I have felt that my strength had diminished, and I asked God earnestly in prayer to enlighten me with his light to make me make the right decision, not for my own good, but for the good of the church,” he said. “I have taken this step in full awareness of its seriousness and also its newness, but with a profound peace of mind. Loving the church also means having the courage to make difficult, agonized choices, always keeping in mind the good of the church, not of oneself.”
He also asked his flock to pray for his successor.
The Guardian reported that St. Peter's Basilica was overflowing with enthusiastic pilgrims, with people camped outside the square watching the pope on large TV screens.
"I came to thank [the pope] for the testimony that he has given the church," an Italian woman named Maria Cristina Chiarini, who attended the address with her parish, told the paper. "There's nostalgia, human nostalgia, but also comfort, because as a Christian we have hope. The Lord won't leave us without a guide."
Benedict, 85, becomes the first pope in almost six centuries to resign. His successor will likely be chosen next month by a conclave. The pope recently threatened immediate excommunication for anyone who leaked secrets of the College of Cardinals during the process to elect the next papal leader.
James Robbins, the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent, wrote of the pope’s last public speech: “The sight of a living pope here in St Peter's Square taking his leave of the faithful reinforces the sense of the Catholic Church at an unprecedented moment in its extraordinary history. No other pope has ever asked over a billion Catholics throughout the world to pray for him ‘and for the new pope,’ as Benedict XVI did here in Vatican City.”
Was this the message of a man moving with the times, Robbins pondered?
“A pope accepting with serenity that the church at a time of crisis needs a younger, fitter man?” he asked. "Certainly, Pope Benedict looked and sounded frail -- worn out, even -- as he delivered his opening prayer. ... But his decision to quit leaves behind a [papacy] piled high with challenges over sex abuse and financial scandals his supporters insist he has done so much to confront while conceding there is far more still to be done.”
Following his retirement, Pope Benedict will be called pope emeritus, as well as His Holiness. In addition, he will maintain his title of Benedict XVI, instead of using his given name, Joseph Ratzinger.