VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI delivered an emotional final Sunday prayer in St. Peter’s Square, saying God had told him to devote himself to quiet contemplation but pledging not to “abandon” the church.
Tens of thousands of supporters turned out for Benedict’s weekly Angelus prayer, his last ahead of his formal resignation on Thursday, often interrupting him with clapping, cheering and chanting.
“The Lord is calling me to climb the mountain, to dedicate myself even more to prayer and meditation. But this does not mean abandoning the church,” the pope said from the window of his residence in the Vatican, his voice breaking with emotion.
“If God is asking me to do this it is precisely so I can continue to serve with the same dedication and love as before but in a way that is more appropriate for my age and for my strength.”
The pope thanked the crowd with a final unscripted call, telling them: “We will always be close!”
In an announcement that shocked the globe, the 85-year-old leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics said earlier this month he will be stepping down because he lacks the strength to carry on.
He is the first pope since the Middle Ages to resign.
The final days of his pontificate, however, are being overshadowed by scandal over two cardinals — one accused of covering up pedophile abusers and the other accused of “inappropriate acts” — who are set to take part in the conclave to elect his successor.
Vatican officials Sunday informed the pope of one of the new scandals, that Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic cleric allegedly engaged in “intimate” behavior with priests.
In Britain, the accusations against Cardinal Keith O’Brien — head of the church in Scotland and one of this nation’s most strident opponents of gay rights — were already escalating into a national furor. The controversy revolved around a report first published Saturday night on the website of Britain’s Observer newspaper, saying that four men — three current priests and one former priest — had denounced O’Brien earlier this month for engaging in “inappropriate” and “intimate” behavior.
Through a spokesman, O’Brien denied the charges and said he was seeking legal counsel.
The exact nature and timing of the alleged contact, which the Observer said was reported to the Vatican’s emissary in London a week before Benedict’s Feb. 11 resignation, were not spelled out. But one of the alleged victims claimed that O’Brien had started a “relationship” with him in the 1980s that resulted in the need for long-term counseling. Another of the men said O’Brien had initiated “inappropriate contact” during nightly prayers, according to the paper.
Among the people at St. Peter’s was Gianpaolo, 33, who said Benedict had been “less courageous” than his predecessors, and stressed the need for major reforms.
“The church has to have a major reflection after this resignation. Something has changed inside the church and this decision reflects this,” said Gianpaolo, who came with his two sons.
Forty-five-year-old Linda from Wales said: “He was not so open as the last popes before him. A new pope should be more open to people, to new ideas.”