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Pope recalls 'joy' of papacy, and difficulties

Alessandro Bianchi | Reuters - Pope Benedict XVI holds his last general audience in St Peter's Square at the Vatican on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013. The weekly event which would normally be held in a vast auditorium in winter, but has been moved outdoors to St. Peter's Square so more people can attend. The pope has two days left before he takes the historic step of becoming the first pontiff in some six centuries to step down instead of ruling for life.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em> Alessandro Bianchi | Reuters</em></div>Pope Benedict XVI holds his last general audience in St Peter's Square at the Vatican on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013. The weekly event which would normally be held in a vast auditorium in winter, but has been moved outdoors to St. Peter's Square so more people can attend. The pope has two days left before he takes the historic step of becoming the first pontiff in some six centuries to step down instead of ruling for life.
Andrew Medichini | Associated Press - A view of the crowd in St. Peter's Square during Pope Benedict XVI's last general audience in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013. 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.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em> Andrew Medichini | Associated Press</em></div>A view of the crowd in St. Peter's Square during Pope Benedict XVI's last general audience in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013. 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.
Andrew Medichini | Associated Press - Pope Benedict XVI is driven through the crowd in his pope-mobile as he arrives to celebrate his last general audience in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013. 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.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em> Andrew Medichini | Associated Press</em></div>Pope Benedict XVI is driven through the crowd in his pope-mobile as he arrives to celebrate his last general audience in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013. 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.
Oli Scarff | Getty Images - Pope Benedict XVI (L) leaves the dias in St Peter's Square at the end of his weekly public audience on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, in Vatican City, Vatican. The Pontiff has attended his last weekly public audience before stepping down tomorrow. Pope Benedict XVI has been the leader of the Catholic Church for eight years and is the first Pope to retire since 1415. He cites ailing health as his reason for retirement and will spend the rest of his life in solitude away from public engagements.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em> Oli Scarff | Getty Images</em></div>Pope Benedict XVI (L) leaves the dias in St Peter's Square at the end of his weekly public audience on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, in Vatican City, Vatican.  The Pontiff has attended his last weekly public audience before stepping down tomorrow. Pope Benedict XVI has been the leader of the Catholic Church for eight years and is the first Pope to retire since 1415. He cites ailing health as his reason for retirement and will spend the rest of his life in solitude away from public engagements.

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By The Associated Press
Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, 6:48 a.m.
 

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI basked in an emotional send-off Wednesday from an estimated 150,000 people at his final general audience in St. Peter's Square, recalling moments of “joy and light” during his papacy and also times of difficulty when “it seemed like the Lord was sleeping.”

The crowd, many toting banners saying “Grazie!” (“Thank you!”), jammed the piazza to bid Benedict farewell and hear his final speech as pontiff. In this appointment, which he has kept each week for eight years to teach the world about the Catholic faith, Benedict thanked his flock for respecting his retirement, which takes effect Thursday.

Benedict clearly enjoyed the occasion, 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. Seventy cardinals, some tearful, sat in solemn attendance — then gave him a standing ovation at the end of his speech.

Benedict made a quick exit, foregoing the typical meet-and-greet session that follows the audience as if to not prolong the goodbye.

Given the historic moment, Benedict also 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.

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 pope on April 19, 2005, he questioned if God truly wanted it.

“‘It's a great burden that you've placed on my shoulders,'” he recalled telling God.

During his eight years as pope, Benedict said he had 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.”

But he said he never felt alone, that God always guided him, and he thanked his cardinals and colleagues for their support and for “understanding and respecting this important decision.”

The pope's eight-year tenure has been beset by the clerical sex abuse scandal, discord over everything from priestly celibacy to women's ordination, and most recently the betrayal by his own butler who stole his private papers and leaked them to a journalist.

Under a bright sun and blue skies, the square was overflowing with pilgrims and curiosity-seekers. Those who couldn't get in picked spots along the main boulevard leading to the square to watch the event on giant TV screens. About 50,000 tickets were requested for Benedict's final master class. In the end, the Vatican estimated that 150,000 people flocked to the farewell.

“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.”

With chants of “Benedetto!” erupting often, the mood was far more buoyant than during the pope's final Sunday blessing. It recalled the jubilant turnouts that often accompanied him at World Youth Days and events involving his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

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.

“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,” Benedict told the crowd.

Benedict will meet Thursday morning with 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.

Many of the cardinals who will choose Benedict's successor were in St. Peter's Square for his final audience. Those included retired Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, the object of a grass-roots campaign in the U.S. to persuade him to recuse himself for having covered up for sexually abusive priests. Mahony has said he will be among the 115 cardinals voting on who the next pope should be.

“God bless you,” Mahony said when asked by television crews about the campaign.

Also in attendance Wednesday were cardinals over 80, who can't participate in the conclave but will participate in meetings next week to discuss the problems facing the church and the qualities needed in a new pope.

“I am joining the entire church in praying that the cardinal electors will have the help of the Holy Spirit,” Spanish Cardinal Julian Herranz, 82, said.

Herranz has been authorized by the pope to brief voting-age cardinals on his investigation into the leaks of papal documents that exposed corruption in the Vatican administration.

Vatican officials say cardinals will begin meeting Monday to decide when to set the date for the conclave.

But the rank-and-file faithful in the crowd weren't so concerned with the future; they wanted to savor the final moments with the pope they have known for years.

“I came to thank him for the testimony that he has given the church,” said Maria Cristina Chiarini, a 52-year-old homemaker who traveled by train from Lugo in central Italy with about 60 members of her parish. “There's nostalgia, human nostalgia, but also comfort, because as a Christian we have hope. The Lord won't leave us without a guide.”

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