'I did it for the Church': frail and grey Pope Benedict XVI faces the masses for the final time

Michael Day in Rome sees Benedict’s first audience since his shock decision


The faithful in all shapes, sizes and colours - including a lederhosen-clad brass band from Bavaria and child pilgrims from Vietnam - were at the Vatican today to see Benedict host his first general audience since he shocked the Catholic World with news he was quitting.

But the atmosphere in the vast concrete Paolo VI Hall in the Vatican City, had — despite the cheers and flag waving, small Mexican waves and occasional bursts of song — an air of forced jollity about it.

Believers thought they ought to be there; students from a Catholic school near Bath helped out with a few verses of Jerusalem. But most were unsure how to react to the news that God’s representative on Earth was taking early retirement.

Emmanuel Ayala, a 25-year-old priest from Mexico, was reluctant to comment on whether the Pontiff was right to standing down. He’d simply say: “It’s very sad and he’s a great man.” A 70-year-old Roman in front of me, Gianfrano Cornacchiolo, was sure, however. “He shouldn’t being going. He should have followed the examples of St Peter.”

When Benedict entered stage-right at 10.40am, the huge hall erupted in cheers. Seated on a white throne, with the oddly nightmarish Fazzini sculpture of the Resurrection behind him, the Pope looked like death warmed up; frail and grey.  His tired eyes, appeared focused somewhere else rather than on the crowds in front of him.

In his halting monotone, he intoned the first words of the address. “Dear brothers and sisters as you know,…I have decided to step down for the good of the Church, after praying for a long time and examining my conscience before God…”

Such is the power of faith that believers and non-believers alike witnessed the 85-year-old  appear rejuvenated by the cheers and genuine affection present in the hall. He even seemed to be enjoying himself, treating child choirs to little waves of his hand after their brief tributes.

At the end of the audience the black and crimson-robed cardinals approached and greeted the Holy Father one by one. Despite the warm smiles and clasped hands, it was tempting to wonder if one or more of these princes of the church had played the part of Judas in Benedict’s premature departure.

This morning a Portuguese cardinal was reported in La Stampa newspaper as saying the scandal and the presumed power struggles in the Holy See thought by many to lie behind Vatileaks, maybe have influenced Benedict’s decision to quit.

Speaking after the audience, Vatican expert Gerard O’Connell who writes for La Stampa’s Vatican Insider, noted: “The Vatileaks affair was a very personal blow to him. There are unanswered questions about it.” He said the unpublished report on the scandal, which Benedict was privy to, may have further upset the pontiff revealing, as many have speculated, a wider conspiracy against him.

But the coming change – an official and existential one – is not in doubt. At 8pm on Thursday 28th of February, Pope Benedict will cease to be infallible. At 5pm that afternoon he will finish his day’s work at the Vatican and fly by helicopter to the Papal summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, outside Rome. Holy See spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said today that the final couple of hours will be “normal, calm; he’ll have dinner. It will be a simple evening, I think.”

But the curious transformation described by Catholic doctrine has continued to perplex and intrigue the press and public. And his historic decision to quit, despite winning praise from many church figures, continues to raise more questions than answers.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Application Support Engineer - Software

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A small rapidly expanding IT So...

The Grange Retirement Home: Full Time Care Team Manager

£22,400: The Grange Retirement Home: This is a key role which requires a sound...

Guru Careers: Pricing Analyst

£30 - 35k: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pricing Analyst to join a leading e-...

Guru Careers: Membership Administrator

£23K: Guru Careers: We're seeking an experienced Membership Administrator, to ...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada