x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Final flight as pope for Benedict XVI

Pontiff's closest aide wept by his side as he said farewell to Vatican officials gathered in the courtyard of the Apostolic Palace, Swiss Guards standing by at attention.

CASTEL GANDOLFO, ITALY // Pope Benedict XVI yesterday told well-wishers that he was beginning the final stage of his life as "simply a pilgrim" before he became the first pontiff in 600 years to resign.

Benedict arrived yesterday at the papal holiday retreat at Castel Gandolfo after an emotional send-off from the Vatican. His closest aide wept by his side as he said farewell to Vatican officials gathered in the courtyard of the Apostolic Palace, Swiss Guards standing by at attention.

Bells tolled as the pope left the Vatican by helicopter and circled St Peter's Square, where banners reading "Thank You" were held up skyward for him to see.

The bells tolled again as he arrived in Castel Gandolfo, whose central piazza was jammed with people eager to catch the last glimpse of Benedict as pope.

To a roaring cheer, Benedict, 85, appeared at the balcony of the palazzo where he will spend the first few months of his retirement. He said he was happy to be "surrounded by the beauty of the Creator" on this unique day.

As of 8pm yesterday, he said to applause, he would no longer be pope. "I'm simply a pilgrim who is beginning the last stage of his pilgrimage on this Earth," Benedict said, as well-wishers wiped tears from their eyes.

It was an emotion-drenched day that began with Benedict's final audience with his cardinals, where he pledged his "unconditional reverence and obedience" to his successor, a poignant and powerful message to close out his eight-year pontificate.

In an unexpected address inside the Vatican's frescoed Clementine Hall, the Pope appeared to be trying to defuse concerns about his future role and the possible conflicts arising from the peculiar situation of having both a reigning pope and a retired one.

Benedict also gave a final set of instructions to the "princes" of the church who will elect his successor, urging them to be united as they huddle to choose the 266th leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.

"May the College of Cardinals work like an orchestra, where diversity - an expression of the universal church - always works toward a higher and harmonious agreement," he said.

It was seen as a clear reference to the deep internal divisions that have come to the fore in recent months following the leaks of sensitive Vatican documents that exposed power struggles and allegations of corruption inside the Vatican.

The audience inside the Apostolic Palace was as unique as Benedict's decision to quit, with the Pope, wearing his crimson velvet cape and using a cane, bidding farewell to his closest advisers and the cardinals themselves bowing to kiss his fisherman's ring for the last time.

Some seemed to choke up at that moment, and a few lingered on to chat with the Pope for as long as they could. But the scene seemed otherwise almost normal, with cardinals chatting on the sidelines waiting their turn to say goodbye.

Benedict said he would pray for the cardinals in coming days as they discuss the issues facing the church, the qualities needed in a new pope, and as they prepare to enter into the secret conclave to elect him.

"Among you is also the future pope, whom I today promise my unconditional reverence and obedience," Benedict told them.

His decision to live at the Vatican in retirement, be called "emeritus pope" and "Your Holiness" and wear the white cassock associated with the papacy has deepened concerns about the shadow he might cast over the next papacy.

But Benedict has tried to address those worries over the past two weeks, saying that once retired he would be "hidden from the world" and living a life of prayer.

 

* Associated Press