VATICAN CITY – In a final appearance before beginning his retirement behind Vatican walls, Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday told an adoring crowd – the sort that has mostly eluded him during his eight-year reign – that “to love the church means also to have the courage to make difficult, painful decisions, always putting the good of the church before oneself.”
More than a hundred thousand people packed St. Peter’s Square on a crisp and sunny day to listen to the departing pontiff, dressed in white cassock, zucchetto and broad-lapelled blazer.
About 70 of the church’s cardinals, who are now tasked with selecting Benedict’s successor, sat to his right on the steps before St. Peter’s Basilica. To his left sat ambassadors representing myriad countries. Flags from nations around the world were held aloft and waved by people in the vast crowd below.
They all listened to Benedict, 85, visibly frail but in good spirits, as he recalled that upon his election as pope on April 19, 2005, he thought, “Lord, what do you ask of me?”
But, he added, he had faith that God would guide him.
“It was a journey for the church that had moments of joy and light,” but also darker moments, “in which the waters were rough and the wind was at its face … and the Lord seemed to sleep,” Benedict said. “But I have always known that the Lord is in that ship and that the ship of the church is not mine. It is not ours. It is his, and the Lord will not let it founder.”
Benedict tried but was unable to reverse the erosion of the church in the Western world during his tenure. During his watch, he saw a global explosion of the sexual-abuse crisis that had festered under his predecessor, John Paul II, and a seemingly incessant flow of scandals coming out of the church government that he struggled to manage. The dysfunction did not relent in the months, weeks and days leading up to the pope’s farewell.
But in his last public appearance, Benedict pointed to the sea of faithful spilling out of the square and into the broad avenue leading to the basilica, which the Vatican, citing authorities, estimated at 150,000 people. “In a time in which many talk of our decline,” Benedict said, “we see that the church is alive today.”
The pope then ruminated on his own historic decision to step down as leader.
“In these last months, I felt my strength diminished, and I asked God with insistence, and in prayer, to illuminate for me with His light the right choice not for my good, but for the good of the church,” Benedict said.