Videos: Pope Benedict's valediction

Tomorrow, Pope Benedict XVI will become the first Pope to retire in almost 600 years, and the Catholic Church will begin the process of selecting a successor to the seat of St. Peter.  Earlier today, the Pope greeted the public for the last time before he withdraws into seclusion and prayer, offering his blessings in a variety of languages in this final Wednesday audience.  In his English-language remarks, the soon-to-be Emeritus Pope expressed his gratitude for the opportunity to lead the church, and asked for prayers and pledged to pray for all of us as well:

The AP captured the Pope’s entry into St. Peter’s Square, which filled with the faithful who wanted one last glance at Benedict XVI, and later reported on his address:

Addressing a crowd of thousands, the pope said, “I ‘d like to thank everybody for the help I have received.” He said that he has experienced both joyful and difficult moments as pope.

“My heart is open to the world,” the pope said. “I will continue to accompany the Church with my prayers.

“I am asking each of you to pray for me,” he said.

He said that he was resigning not for his own good but for the good of the church, and he thanked the faithful for understanding his decision to resign.

Some 50,000 tickets were requested for Benedict’s final master class in St. Peter’s Square; thousands more people packed the main boulevard leading to the piazza to watch Wednesday’s audience on giant TV screens.

Sky News gives a longer report of the speech:

He said his Papacy had faced joy, but also had undergone ‘difficult moments’. He said that during his time as head of the 1.2bn Catholics around the world, there had been ‘turbulent seas’.

Drawing on a Biblical analogy, he said: “The Lord gave us days of sun and of light breeze, days in which the fishing was good. There were also moments when there were stormy waters and headwinds.”

But, he said, God would not let the church sink.

He said he had resigned not for his own good, but for the good of the Church.

Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday said he was aware of the “gravity and novelty” of his decision to resign and would “accompany” the Church in prayer even after his resignation the following day.

“I took this step in full awareness of its gravity and novelty but with profound serenity of spirit,” he said.

Pope Benedict told the 50,000-strong crowd he was not “coming down from the Cross”, but would remain in the service of the Church through prayer.

Two years ago, I was one of three million people who filled the Vatican and much of Rome for the beatification of Benedict XVI’s predecessor, Blessed John Paul II.  At that time (May 2011), Rome set up giant TV screens all over the city, so that those who could not see the ceremony in person could still watch it with the global community that had assembled. The piazza which the AP notes is probably where my wife and I ended up for the beatification; it’s right outside the walls, near the Vatican Museum.

This crowd was obviously not as large, but then again, this is no longer the big story.  After tomorrow, the story shifts to the conclave, the cardinals — one of whom will be the future Pope — and the path for the Catholic Church going forward.  The next three weeks should be fascinating, even from a secular perspective, as papal transitions are usually a once-a-generation event. Blessed John Paul reminded the world just how powerful and influential the Catholic Church can be in the world, and how important any conclave may be to history.

Kathryn Jean Lopez adds a thought about the future:

He said, in part: “we have been called to renew our joyful trust in the Lord’s presence in our lives and in the life of the Church.” That, of course, is the message of his final act, to step aside as pope. He leaves this role having instituted a year focused on creed, after a pontificate of catechesis. He does so, focused on prayer, dedicating his remaining days to prayer, in what might be his most powerful role yet.

livetweeted some of it this morning. And some thoughts here and hereincluding from the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, as he headed over to Rome for a conclave that must be focused on renewal and reform — the Evangelical Catholicism, which is real Catholicism, George Weigel has written about in great detail.

Stay tuned.

Addendum: Here are a couple of posts from my earlier trip to Rome: