Although it was not his last day on the Chair of Peter, Pope Benedict received the best farewell we could have given him during his last general audience, yesterday morning. And, in turn, it was the best sendoff he could have given us.
Secular media reluctantly reported “several thousand” faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square, but the official numbers were 150,000, which does not include the pilgrims who were forced to remain in the surrounding streets. In total, the number of faithful who wanted a last glimpse of the Holy Father may have been as high as 400,000.
I watched the audience via a livestream provided by SQPN, with live commentary by Fr. Roderick (recording available here). Nobody really knew what to expect until the audience had gotten underway. The Pope’s extra long tour across the square was no surprise, but as he had taken his place on the platform in front of the facade of the basilica, his very personal reflection did take many by surprise. Rather than a reflection on a Gospel passage or theological topic, Pope Benedict took the opportunity to express his gratitude: to God, the cardinals and the entire Curia, all of those working behind the scenes, the Diocese of Rome, and the entire people of God. Several times, he expressed his desire to remember in prayer everyone he ever encountered. A very touching passage, I found, was how people would write to the Holy Father:
“It’s true that I receive letters from the world’s greatest figures – from the Heads of State, religious leaders, representatives of the world of culture and so on. I also receive many letters from ordinary people who write to me simply from their heart and let me feel their affection, which is born of our being together in Christ Jesus, in the Church. These people do not write me as one might write, for example, to a prince or a great figure one does not know. They write as brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, with the sense of very affectionate family ties. Here, one can touch what the Church is – not an organization, not an association for religious or humanitarian purposes, but a living body, a community of brothers and sisters in the Body of Jesus Christ, who unites us all. To experience the Church in this way and almost be able to touch with one’s hands the power of His truth and His love, is a source of joy, in a time in which many speak of its decline.”
Although today we will get our last glimpse of the man who has been our spiritual father for almost eight years, he is not leaving us, he said yesterday:
“The “always” is also a “forever” – there is no returning to private life. My decision to forgo the exercise of active ministry, does not revoke this. I do not return to private life, to a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences and so on. I do not abandon the cross, but remain in a new way near to the Crucified Lord. I no longer wield the power of the office for the government of the Church, but in the service of prayer I remain, so to speak, within St. Peter’s bounds. St. Benedict, whose name I bear as Pope, shall be a great example in this for me. He showed us the way to a life which, active or passive, belongs wholly to the work of God.”
Today, we are saying our final goodbyes, but it really isn’t a farewell. Although we may not see or even be aware of it, in the gardens of Vatican City there will be a loving heart, continuously praying for all of us.
Tomorrow, the frenzy of conclave preparation gets underway, but today, let’s remember, let’s say our goodbyes and let’s pray.