Pope Benedict XVI recalls joy and 'choppy waters'

Pope Benedict XVI: "Thank you from the bottom of my heart, I'm really moved"

Pope Benedict XVI has admitted he faced "choppy waters" during his eight years at the helm of the Roman Catholic Church, but says he was guided by God and felt his presence every day.

The Pope, 85, will retire on Thursday - the first pope to abdicate since Gregory XII in 1415.

Thousands of pilgrims gathered in St Peter's Square in the Vatican for Pope Benedict's final general audience.

His successor will be chosen in a conclave to take place in March.

Pope Benedict told the crowd his papacy had been "a heavy burden" but he accepted it because he was sure that God would guide him.

At times he "felt like St Peter with his apostles on the Lake of Galilee", he said, making reference to the Biblical story when the disciples were battling against heavy waves and Jesus Christ appeared to them.

The Church has been beset by scandals over sexual abuse by priests and leaked confidential documents revealing corruption and infighting in the Vatican.

'Serenity of spirit'

The Pope thanked his flock for respecting his decision to retire and said he was standing down for the good of the Church.

Analysis

Pope Benedict XVI's swansong - his final public appearance at a general audience in St Peter's Square - was a bittersweet affair.

A shy and retiring person in private life, he relaxed his guard, something he has rarely done in public during his eight-year pontificate.

The papacy had been "a great weight" upon his shoulders, although he had never lost faith.

Although Pope Benedict had kind valedictory words for his top cardinals with whom he has been working inside the Vatican, professional Vatican watchers were aware that the "difficult moments" to which Benedict referred in his farewell speech were code for the scandal and infighting that have gone on inside the Vatican, often without his being properly informed.

The next pope will have to give priority to a reform of the Vatican bureaucracy, the central government of the Roman Catholic Church, which has often been overly hesitant to react to the various crises which have arisen during Benedict's papacy.

"I took this step [resignation] in full awareness of its gravity and novelty but with profound serenity of spirit," he said in his address.

As a result of his surprise announcement, the Church has now amended its laws to bring forward the election of a successor.

A conclave beginning in mid-March would have left little time to have a new pope installed for one of the most important periods in the Catholic calendar, Holy Week, leading up to Easter, which begins on 24 March.

The BBC's Alan Johnston in Rome says that on Thursday the Pope will travel by helicopter to his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, about 15 miles (24km) south-east of Rome. He will cease to be Pope at 20:00 local time.

After Benedict XVI steps down, he will become known as "pope emeritus".

He will retain the honorific "His Holiness" after his abdication and will continue to be known by his papal title of Benedict XVI, rather than reverting to Joseph Ratzinger.

He will wear his distinctive white cassock without any cape or trimmings, but will surrender his gold ring of office and his personal seal will be destroyed.

Nuns and monks were among thousands running into the square to take their place in history

He will also give up wearing his red shoes.

"On the one hand I felt that since the decision that he would leave office and resign became public, Pope Benedict is relieved," said the head of the German bishops' conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch.

"But he also now feels the sympathy of the people for him, and therefore he will have a sense of melancholy and nostalgia, a bit of sadness."

Farewell

The title "emeritus" is used when a person of status, such as a professor or bishop, hands over their position, so their former rank can be retained in their title.

Timeline to Thursday's resignation

  • Thursday 1000 to 1115 GMT: Cardinals gather in the Vatican to bid farewell to Pope Benedict
  • About 1515 GMT: Benedict is driven to a helipad within the Vatican
  • About 1600 GMT: Papal helicopter flies to Castel Gandolfo near Rome
  • About 1700 GMT: Pope appears at a window overlooking the public square in Castel Gandolfo to bless a crowd
  • About 1900 GMT: Benedict ceases to be pope; Swiss guards at the entrance to Castel Gandolfo leave their posts

The Pope is to spend his final hours at his Vatican residence saying farewell to the cardinals who have been his closest aides during his eight-year pontificate, says the BBC's David Willey at the Vatican.

His personal archive of documents will be packed up and, at 20:00 (19:00 GMT) on Thursday, the Swiss Guard on duty at his Castel Gandolfo residence will be dismissed, to be replaced by Vatican police.

This will mark the formal end of his papacy and the beginning of the period of transition to his successor, due to be chosen next month.

From 4 March, the College of Cardinals will meet in general congregations to discuss the problems facing the Church and set a date for the start of the secret election, or conclave, to elect Pope Benedict's successor.

That successor will be chosen by 115 cardinal-electors (those younger than 80 years old) through ballots held in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel.

A two-thirds-plus-one vote majority is required. Sixty-seven of the electors were appointed by Benedict XVI, and the remainder by his predecessor John Paul II.

About half the cardinal-electors (60) are European - 21 of them Italian - and many have worked for the administrative body of the Church, the Curia, in Rome.

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