VATICAN CITY (CBSNewYork/AP) – Pope Benedict XVI basked in an emotional sendoff Wednesday at his final general audience in St. Peter’s Square, recalling moments of “joy and light” during his papacy but also times of great difficulty. He also thanked his flock for respecting his decision to retire.
Tens of thousands of people toting banners saying “Grazie!” and “Thank you” jammed the piazza in Rome to bid Benedict farewell and join the appointment he has kept each week for eight years to teach the world about the Catholic faith.
Benedict clearly enjoyed the crowds, taking a long victory lap around the square in an open-sided car and stopping to kiss and bless half a dozen children handed to him by his secretary.
In keeping with the historic moment, Benedict changed course and didn’t produce 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 and urging the faithful to pray for his successor.
“To love the Church means also to have the courage to take difficult, painful decisions, always keeping the good of the Church in mind, not oneself,” Benedict said to thundering applause.
Vatican spokesman Father Tom Rosica, a native of upstate New York, said these are momentous days for the Catholic Church. The resignation of its supreme leader hasn’t happened in 600 years.
“This is an extraordinary historic moment that’s filled with all sorts of emotions. There are those who still can’t believe this. There are those who accept this as a profound, prophetic, honest, humble gesture by the pope. There are some who may be upset,” Rosica told CBS 2′s Tony Aiello. “Nevertheless, it is a profound teaching moment for the universal church. We have no manual, no playbook.”
Benedict has said he decided to retire after realizing that, at 85, he simply didn’t have the “strength of mind or body” to carry on.
“The words were as sharp, profound as we’re used to from him, but I could tell physically he was very worn and very fragile,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan told CBS 2′s Aiello.
Dolan said he understands some Catholics are feeling nervous, having never lived through the resignation of a pope.
“Well, Tony, some of that is natural. We haven’t been through this in six centuries so I don’t blame you feeling a little uncertainty. I’m wondering myself,” Dolan said.
Benedict will meet Thursday morning with the cardinals for a final time, then fly by helicopter to the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo south of Rome.
There, at 8 p.m., 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.
“The cardinals who live here in Rome told me that the pope let the word out, it’s gonna be very informal, paternal. I want to spend an hour with you fellows just chatting and seeing each of you, so that’s going to be difficult,” Dolan said.
“I want to say Holy Father, I feel very close to you. You appointed me to New York, you made me a cardinal. I have followed your teaching closely,” Dolan added, when asked what he might say to Benedict.
Vatican officials say the 115 cardinals under the age of 80 charged with selecting the new pontiff will begin meeting Monday to decide when to set the date for the conclave.
Former Newark archbishop Theodore McCarrick is not eligible to vote, but he told CBS 2′s Aiello he remembers the awesome responsibility he felt in the 2005 conclave that elected Benedict.
“You’re trying to figure out what God wants! You’re trying to put yourself in the mind of God and say, ‘Okay now Lord, what do you want? Tell me who you want?’” Cardinal McCarrick said.
Cardinal Dolan will enter the proceedings with a lot of buzz at his back, thanks to frequent mentions in the Italian media that he could be the first American pope, but that buzz always comes with a caveat — it’s possible but far from likely.
“In those daily sessions, each cardinal will share the challenges the Church is facing — the priorities,” Dolan said.
Dolan left for Rome Tuesday afternoon. He was elevated to cardinal by Benedict last year. Before leaving, he called participating in the conclave to elect Benedict’s successor an “awesome responsibility.”
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