VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI told thousands of faithful Wednesday that he was resigning for “the good of the church” — an extraordinary scene of a pope explaining himself to his flock that unfolded in his first appearance since dropping the bombshell announcement.
Looking tired but serene, the 85-year-old Benedict basked in a standing ovation when he entered the packed hall for his traditional Wednesday catechism lesson. His speech was interrupted repeatedly by applause, and many in the audience of thousands had tears in their eyes.
A huge banner reading, “Grazie Santita” (“Thank you, Your Holiness”) was strung up at the back of the room.
Benedict appeared wan and spoke very softly, but his eyes twinkled at the flock’s warm and heartfelt welcome. He repeated in Italian what he had told his cardinals Monday in Latin: that he simply didn’t have the strength to continue.
“As you know, I have decided to renounce the ministry that the Lord gave to me on April 19, 2005,” he said to applause. “I did this in full liberty for the good of the church.”
He thanked the faithful for their prayers and love, which he said he had “physically felt in these days that haven’t been easy for me.” And he asked them to “to continue to pray for me, the church, and the future pope.”
The atmosphere was festive and warm, if somewhat bittersweet, as if the crowd was trying to ask him to stay with them for just a bit longer. A chorus of Italian schoolchildren serenaded him with one of his favorite hymns in German — a gesture that won over the pope, who thanked them for singing a piece “particularly dear to me.”
“He gave us eight wonderful years of his words,” said Ileana Sviben, an Italian from the northern city of Trieste who couldn’t hide her sadness. “He was a wonderful theologian and pastor.”
“We were just coming for vacation, and now we are getting all of this!” marveled Terry Rodger, a tourist from New Orleans as he headed to the audience. “I am very excited. I’m surprised.”
But the Rev. Reinaldo Braga Jr., a Brazilian priest studying theology in Rome, said he was saddened when he first heard the news.
“The atmosphere was funereal, but nobody had died,” he said. “But then I realized it was a wise act for the entire church. He taught the church and the world that the papacy is not about power but about service.”
It was a sentiment the retiring Benedict himself emphasized Wednesday when he told his flock that the “path of power is not the road of God.”
The audience included groups of nuns waving papal flags and, among the clerics, U.S. Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned as archbishop of Boston at the height of the clerical sex-abuse scandal in the United States.
Benedict is the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years, and the decision has placed the Vatican in uncharted waters: No one knows what he’ll be called or even what he’ll wear after Feb. 28.
The Vatican, however, revealed some details of his final day as pope, saying he would attend a morning farewell ceremony with his cardinals and then fly off by helicopter at 5 p.m. to the papal summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo.