VATICAN CITY — In his last Sunday blessing before he retires, Pope Benedict XVI reassured Catholics he was not abandoning them but would continue to serve the church even in his retirement.
Reading from remarks as he stood at the window of the Apostolic Palace, the Pope said God was calling him “to climb up on the mountain” and to dedicate himself more to “prayer and meditation.”
“This doesn’t mean abandoning the church,” Benedict added. “On the contrary, if God asks me, this is because I can continue to serve” the church “with the same dedication and the same love which I have tried to do so until now, but in a way more suitable to my age and to my strength.”
On Thursday evening, the 85-year-old German-born theologian will become the first Pope to have resigned from the papacy in 600 years.
Cardinals from around the world have begun gathering in Rome to greet Benedict before he retires. When he does, the cardinals will discuss when to begin the conclave to elect his successor.
Sunday’s appearance from his studio window overlooking the vast square was his next-to-last appointment with the public of his nearly eight-year papacy.
Tens of thousands of faithful and other admirers have asked the Vatican for a seat in the square for his last general audience Wednesday.
Perhaps buoyed by the warm welcome, thunderous applause, and the banners reading “Grazie” (Thanks) held up in the crowd estimated by police to number 100,000, he looked relaxed and sounded energized.
Benedict smiled at the crowd after an aide parted the white curtain at his window, and he gazed at the people packing the square. Giving greetings in several languages, he acknowledged what he said was an outpouring of “gratitude, affection, and closeness in prayer” since he stunned the church and its 1.2 billion members on Feb. 11 with his decision to renounce his papacy.
“Prayer is not isolating oneself from the world and its contradictions,” the Pope told the crowd. He said he had heard God’s call to prayer, “which gives breath to our spiritual life” in a special way “at this moment of my life.”
Amid the cheering and shouts of “Long live the Pope,” in Italian and Spanish, the Pontiff turned away from his window and stepped back into the apartment. He will leave the residence Thursday, taking a helicopter to the Vatican summer residence in the hills outside Rome while he waits for the monastery to be ready.
No date has been set for the start of the conclave of cardinals, who will vote in secret to elect Benedict’s successor.
The cardinals will have to decide whether it’s time to look outside of Europe for a pope. The papacy was considered the realm of Italian prelates for centuries, until a Pole, John Paul II, was elected as pontiff in 1978, and the German-born Benedict in 2005.