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Tears and a standing ovation as Benedict celebrates last public Mass as pope

Pope Benedict XVI leads the Ash Wednesday service at St. Peter's Basilica on Wednesday.
Pope Benedict XVI leads the Ash Wednesday service at St. Peter's Basilica on Wednesday.Franco Origlia / Getty Images

A capacity crowd in St Peter's Basilica gave Pope Benedict a thunderous standing ovation on Wednesday night at an emotional last public Mass before he stands down at the end of the month.

"Thank you. Now, let's return to prayer," the 85-year-old pontiff said, bringing an end to several minutes of applause that clearly moved him.

In an unusual gesture, bishops took off their distinctive hats in a sign of respect and a few of them wept.

Earlier Wednesday, the pope explained that he had reached his decision to resign after prayer led him to conclude it would be for the best for the Catholic Church.

"I have done this in full freedom for the good of the church, after much prayer and having examined my conscience before God," Benedict said at his weekly general audience speech, according to an English transcript from the Holy See press office at the Vatican.

On Monday, when he revealed the news publicly, Benedict, 85, said that the papacy required "strength of mind and body," and that his health had deteriorated. 

Later, the Vatican revealed that the pope had a pacemaker installed 10 years ago.

In Wednesday's remarks ahead of the Mass, the pontiff said he felt uplifted by the outpouring of support that followed his surprising resignation announcement.

"Thank all of you for the love and for the prayers with which you have accompanied me," he told the packed general audience hall. "In these days, which have not been easy for me, I have felt almost physically the power of prayer -- your prayers."

Benedict also said he had made his decision "knowing full well the seriousness of this act, but also realizing that I am no longer able to carry out the Petrine ministry with the strength which it demands." 

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told Reuters that on the pope's last day in office, Feb. 28, Benedict would receive cardinals in a farewell meeting. Afterward, his ring of office, used to seal official documents, will be destroyed, as is traditionally done when a pope dies. 

'A very quiet' role

The pope is to live in a four-story building attached to the Mater Ecclesiae monastery inside the Vatican, something that the church's senior communications adviser, Greg Burke, told The Associated Press was significant.

"It is something that he has wanted to do for a while," Burke said. "But I think it also suggests that his role is going to be a very quiet one, and that is important so you don't have a situation of ... two different popes at the same time, and one influencing the other. I think the obvious thing is when he says retirement, it really means retiring."

As for the soon-to-be ex-pope's new name, Burke told the AP that Benedict would most likely be referred to as "Bishop of Rome, emeritus" as opposed to "Pope Emeritus."

Other Vatican officials said it would probably be up to the next pope to decide Benedict's new title, and wouldn't exclude that he might still be called "Your Holiness" as a courtesy, much as retired presidents are often referred to as "President," the AP reported.

It is unclear if he will keep the name Benedict, which he took on becoming pope, or return to being Joseph Ratzinger again.

Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Look back at his life from childhood through his papacy.
Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Look back at his life from childhood through his papacy.Javier Barbancho / AFP - Getty Images

Immediately after his resignation, Benedict will spend some time at the papal summer retreat in Castel Gandolfo, overlooking Lake Albano in the hills south of Rome, where he has spent his summer vacations reading and writing, the AP said.

Afterward, he will return to the building in the Vatican's grounds, which was built in 1992 on the site of a former residence for the its gardeners, the AP reported. The building, which was occupied by an order of nuns until October, has a garden, where the nuns would tend to the lemon and orange trees as well as the roses.

The pope's older brother, Georg Ratzinger, confirmed that Benedict has no intention of returning to live in his native Bavaria. "You don't transplant an old tree," Ratzinger said.

Ratzinger said Tuesday that, in addition to his health issues, Benedict had been troubled by episodes such as the "Vatileaks" scandal in which a butler leaked secret documents. He also brought up "the relationship to the Pius Brotherhood" as a problem that troubled the pope.

That organization, formally known as the Society of St. Pius X, fell into a harsh public spotlight in December when its leader, Bishop Bernard Fellay, said Jews were "the enemies of the church." His comment drew criticism from all corners of the church and from the public in general.

Ratzinger said he thought his brother had handled those problems well, but that they had taken their toll.

On Wednesday, the pope asked for continued support for him and the church.

"Continue to pray for me, for the church and for the future pope," he said. "The Lord will guide us."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.


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