The day before his resignation takes effect, Pope Benedict XVI gave his final address from St. Peter’s Square today, addressing a sea of an estimated 150,000 well-wishers and navigating through the crowd in his pope mobile.
Speaking mostly in Italian, Benedict offered some insight into the strain that such a public life can bring, and even issued a warning of sorts to his successor.
“He who assumes the ministry of Peter no longer has any privacy,” he said. “He belongs forever and totally to all people, to all the church. The private dimension is totally, so to speak, removed from his life.”
Benedict officially steps down from his post tomorrow at 8 p.m. He will meet in the morning with the cardinals who will pick his successor in March, and at 5 p.m. he will be brought by helicopter to his summer residence of Castel Gandolfo. He may wave to well-wishers and speak at that location before officially ending his reign. By 8:01, he will be the “pope emeritus” — a title that will be unnatural to Catholics in the modern age.
At times as his pope mobile made its way through the square, he stopped so that he could kiss babies that were handed up to him. Benedict will return to Vatican City as pope emeritus to take up residence in the former convent that is being renovated for him, where he will likely serve as a looming presence for his successor.
Benedict’s resignation shocked both Catholics and non-Catholics around the world because it came with no forewarning and because it is so rare — Benedict is the first pope to resign in 600 years, and the first to do it voluntarily in nearly 800 years.
Since two-thirds of the 1.2 billion Catholics live outside of Europe and the U.S., primarily in Africa and South America, there are many Vatican watchers who speculate that the cardinals may be ready to break with centuries of tradition and choose a non-white pope.
When Benedict, then known by his given name of Joseph Ratzinger, was chosen in 2005 at the age of 78, there were many who predicted that the front-runner was Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze. But the College of Cardinals selected Ratzinger instead. However, when Ratzinger became pope, Arinze took over from him as cardinal bishop of Velletri-Segni, a Catholic diocese close to Rome, which could bode well for him this time.
But Arinze is now 80 and has already retired, after 25 years working inside the Vatican. It’s not likely the cardinals will chose a pope only five years younger than the retiring Benedict. When Ratziner was selected at 78, he was the oldest chosen to head the church since the 18th century.
However, there are still a couple of non-white contenders considered on the short list: Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, who at age 64 is probably the favorite to succeed Benedict, and Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, 70, a Honduran who was President of the Latin American Episcopal Conference.
“In recent months, I felt that my strength had decreased, and I asked God with insistence in prayer to enlighten me with His light to make me take the right decision – not for my sake, but for the good of the Church,” Benedict said during his final address. “I have taken this step in full awareness of its severity and also its novelty, but with a deep peace of mind. Loving the Church also means having the courage to make difficult, trying choices, having ever before oneself the good of the Church and not one’s own.”
“I do not return to private life, to a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences and so on,” Benedict said. “I do not abandon the cross, but remain in a new way near to the Crucified Lord. I no longer wield the power of the office for the government of the Church, but in the service of prayer I remain, so to speak, within St. Peter’s bounds… I ask you to remember me before God, and above all to pray for the Cardinals, who are called to so important a task, and for the new Successor of Peter, that the Lord might accompany him with the light and the power of His Spirit.”