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, with a papal-letter-leaking scandal, swirling rumors and fresh abuse accusations against one of the voting-age cardinals.
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 of the world’s 1 billion Catholics.
“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.
Again recalling his election, he said he knew full well in 2005 that he who assumes the mission of the pope “no longer has any privacy,” and that in his total service to the church “the private dimension” of one’s life is completely stripped out. The pope “no longer belongs to himself, he belongs to everyone.”
Perhaps in a nod to his decision to keep the title of His Holiness and to be known as pope emeritus, he said that for a pope “there is no return to the private” and that “my decision to renounce the active exercise of the ministry does not revoke this. I will not return to a private life, to a life of travel, meetings, receptions conferences, etcetera.”