VATICAN CITY — They packed St. Peter’s Square when he was named the new pope, and they came again by the thousands to see him off.
On the eve of his retirement as head of the world’s 1.1 billion Roman Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI recalled the joy and burden of leadership yesterday at a final general audience on which cheering devotees and a late-winter sun both smiled warmly. The eight years of his papacy, Benedict told the crowd, had been a grand journey, sometimes smooth, sometimes turbulent, but always steered by God.
“The Lord did not let us founder. ... This has been a certainty that nothing can obscure,” the pontiff said, abandoning his usual practice of preaching a homily in favor of an uncharacteristically personal last address. “And it’s for this reason that today my heart is full of thanks to God, because he has not deprived the whole church, or me, of his consolation, his light, his love.”
On Thursday evening, Benedict is set to go down in history as the first pope in 600 years to relinquish his office while still alive. He acknowledged again that his decision to step down because of failing health was a grave and novel one, but declared that he felt “a deep serenity in my soul.”
“To love the church means also to have the courage to make difficult and painful choices, keeping sight of the good of the church and not ourselves,” he said.
Some shouted, “Long live the pope!” as he spoke. Others held aloft banners with the word “Grazie,” or “thanks” in Italian, which fluttered next to national flags belonging to pilgrims who converged on the imposing colonnaded piazza from all parts of the world.
It was clear that, for many in the crowd of more than 100,000, nothing in Benedict’s papacy has become him quite like the leaving of it.