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And here we go… Today we enter the last two days of the 265th papacy. As Benedict undoubtedly looks forward to starting the twilight years of his service to the Church, in St. Peter’s Square, the crowds have been lining up since the early hours of the morning to get their final glimpse of our Holy Father.
Set to begin at 10:30 local time, Pope Benedict XVI’s final general audience promises to be only a slight departure from the norm. The Holy Father will teach one last time, but we’ll have to wait and see what his choice of topic will be. He will take an extra long tour across the square before returning to the Apostolic Palace, where he will meet with some of the dignitaries who have travelled to Rome today. There will be no brief meetings with visiting prelates and pilgrim groups at the end of the audience this time around.
And at the same time this will be like no other general audience before. It will be a historical event: an abdicating Pope bidding farewell to his flock – present in the tens of thousands in Rome, and in the hundreds of millions across the globe. And without doubt it will be emotional. Unavoidable distant in space, the Holy Father is still close in the hearts of many, not least mine.
Sure, we will see him in images and video tomorrow, as he bids his farewells to the cardinals and the Curia, with Cardinal Bertone seeing him off from the Vatican, and Cardinal Sodano greeting him one last time on the helicopter pad at 5pm tomorrow afternoon. Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, the Governor of the Vatican City State, will welcome the Pope at Castel Gandolfo. Appearing on the balcony of the traditional papal summer residence, we will what now seems to be our last glimpse of the Pope, hours before he becomes Pope Emeritus. at 8pm. At that point the Swiss Guards will salute and depart - tasked as they are with the protection of the Roman Pontiff, and tomorrow evening there will be no such person…
And after that rollercoaster ride the next will probably stand ready on Monday, as the cardinals will start their General Congregations in preparation of the conclave.
Photo credit: Looking more tired than we have seen him before, Pope Benedict XVI sits before his last Angelus prayer on Sunday [l'Osservatore Romano].