Pope Benedict XVI delivered his final public prayer ceremony to a crowd of thousands at St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City on Sunday, as he prepares to step down.
“Thank you for your affection,” the pope told the crowd as he appeared at the window of his apartment overlooking the square.
He opened the weekly Angelus prayer with a short sermon; Benedict spoke on the Transfiguration of Christ, one of the key moments in Jesus’ life on Earth, when, according to the church, he took three disciples to pray on a mountain. During his prayers, Jesus was miraculously changed and filled with light.
The crowd interrupted Benedict with rousing applause, as he explained to them that God wanted him to do the same.
“The Lord is calling me to go on top of the hill, to dedicate myself once more to prayer and meditation,” he said. “But this does not mean to abandon the church.”
He ended his message with: “Let’s always be close in prayer.”
After the sermon, he chanted the Angelus, a common Catholic prayer, with the crowd.
The prayer begins: “The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary. And she conceived by the power of Holy Spirit. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.”
This month, Benedict shocked the world with the announcement that he would step down; Thursday will be his last day as acting pope.
The Italian media has been kept busy within the last few days, as rumors abound that Benedict’s resignation is triggered by allegations that gay clergy may have made themselves vulnerable to blackmail by male prostitutes; The Vatican vehemently denied these allegations.
As the first pontiff to step down in six centuries, the 85 year old Benedict stated he is resigning “because of advanced age.”
“Strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me,” Benedict said when he announced his retirement
CNN Senior Vatican Analyst John Allen has said that clergy members trying to cover up their sex lives may well be creating problems in the Catholic Church, as they have in the past. But he believes that the current unsourced speculation in the Italian media should be taken with a grain of salt.
Several years ago, Benedict suggested he would be open to resigning should his health fail, Allen has said.
Sunday’s Angelus will not be Benedict’s final public appearance, however, as he is scheduled to hold a general audience Wednesday, according to the Vatican.
He will hold a “meet and greet” with cardinals late Thursday morning before stepping down the same evening, the Vatican website said.
The pontiff will officially leave office at 8 p.m. on February 28; The Vatican has said a new pope will be in place for the church’s Easter celebrations on March 31.
Benedict will begin his retirement in the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo before he withdraws to a monastery being built for him in Vatican City, a Vatican spokesman has said.