Nightly News   |  February 13, 2013

Secretive process to choose Pope’s successor

In a moving Ash Wednesday mass attended by thousands, Pope Benedict gave his final public mass and is now preparing to meet with the pastors of Rome’s parishes. NBC’s Anne Thompson reports.

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>>> on this ash wednesday, the over 1 billion catholics around the world are still adjust to go the knowledge to the announcement pope benedict will be stepping down and new leadership will follow. and today the man who says he lacks the strength to go on as leader of the church led his final public mass as pope. nbc's anne thompson with us tonight from the vatican . anne, good evening.

>> reporter: good evening, brian. today we finally saw the man who is causing all the commotion here. in two public appearances, pope benedict looked every one of his 85 years, but his voice and his resolve are strong. pope benedict led a packed st. peter's basilica in a moving ash wednesday mass. reminding the faithful, they are made from dust and to dust they shall return. a message of humility, answered by an unusual demonstration of affection. a spontaneous, prolonged standing ovation for the retiring pontiff, at his final public mass. a sea of cell phones appecapturing the exit of a man praised today as a symbol and humble worker.

>> i have tears in my eyes. it's just so amazing to be here.

>> reporter: it turned into a pep rally of sorts for the pontiff. an audience, these tourists from dallas will not forget.

>> i think it's a very big part of history. and we're very proud to be a little part of it.

>> reporter: when benedict's papacy ends, he will remove his ring, a symbol of authority, and it will be destroyed as happens when a pope dies. on his last day, february 28th , he will meet with the cardinal, many appointed by him, and they will choose his successor at a conclave that will begin on or after march 15th . a secret with its own unique campaign rules sans john davis who covered the vatican for the catholic news service.

>> i think if a cardinal really thinks he would make a good pope, he would never say so. he might have a group of friends who might be saying so on his behalf. but even that is considered, you know, kind of going against the rules. you don't campaign.

>> reporter: but there is plenty of maneuvering. meanwhile, the current pope is trying to keep to his regular schedule. tomorrow he meets with the pastors of rome's parishes. brian?

>> anne thompson at the vatican