Pope Benedict makes his final tour of St Peter's Square as Pope. Copyright: Caritas/Michelle Hough

Pope Benedict makes his final tour of St Peter’s Square as Pope. Copyright: Caritas/Michelle Hough

By Michelle Hough, communications officer for Caritas Internationalis

It’s a strange thought, the Pope surrounded by packing boxes. It’s an even stranger thought the Pope not being Pope any more.

As I waited for Pope Benedict to appear for his final General Audience this morning I glanced at his apartment windows overlooking St Peter’s Square. I thought about the magnitude of his decision to stand down and wondered if he felt nervous.

It’s easy to forget that the Pope’s a person with doubts and struggles, but in his final speech to the world as Pontiff, Pope Benedict reminded us that he is as human as the rest of us.

“There were moments of joy and light but also moments that were not easy … there were moments, as there were throughout the history of the Church, when the seas were rough and the wind blew against us and it seemed that the Lord was sleeping,” he said during the audience.

Tens of thousands of people were gathered in St Peter’s Square and millions were undoubtedly watching on televisions around the world as the Pope spoke in Italian. I stood in a corner of the square under an unusually warm February sun and tried not to get too squashed by the people around me as I stood on tiptoe to take pictures.

As Pope Benedict passed by in the Popemobile, it was easy to see he was tired and weighed down by the physical constraints of his 85 years.

“In recent months, I felt that my strength had decreased,” said Pope Benedict, “and I asked God with insistence in prayer to enlighten me with His light to make me take the right decision – not for my sake, but for the good of the Church. I have taken this step in full awareness of its severity and also its novelty, but with a deep peace of mind. Loving the Church also means having the courage to make difficult, trying choices, having ever before oneself the good of the Church and not one’s own.”

I can’t quite gauge what the mood of the square was. Some groups were singing and playing the guitar and waving flags while other people looked a bit subdued.

As I was leaving St Peter’s I bumped into an old Caritas friend, Francis O’Connaire OFM. A Franciscan friar, he helped us with our AIDS conference in 2009 and often comes to our offices. I asked him what he thought. “It’s a historic occasion,” he said. “I’m impressed with his decision, which was a brave one and which he took in faith.”

It was indeed a momentous day, a day of great change. Pope Benedict will fly off in a helicopter to Castel Gandolfo tomorrow, where hopefully he will get the rest he needs. And the days to come will be caught up in searching for his successor.

“I ask you to remember me before God, and above all to pray for the Cardinals,” said Pope Benedict, “who are called to so important a task, and for the new Successor of Peter, that the Lord might accompany him with the light and the power of His Spirit.”

But that is for Tomorrow. For Today we remember Pope Benedict and his final farewell: “In our heart, in the heart of each of you, let there be always the joyous certainty that the Lord is near, that He does not abandon us, that He is near to us and that He surrounds us with His love. Thank you!”

Pope: final General Audience (full text)