In his first public appearance since announcing his resignation on Monday, Pope Benedict XVI said, "I took this decision in full freedom for the good of the Church after praying for a long time and examining my conscience before God." He expressed confidence that the church would not be harmed by his decision, voicing his "certainty that the church belongs to Christ, who will never stop guiding it and caring for it." The Vatican announced that a conclave to elect his successor will start sometime between March 15 and March 20.
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Pope Benedict XVI made his first public appearance today since announcing his resignation. He will be the first pope to step down in 600 years. Today, Benedict told thousands of faithful that he's confident his decision will not harm the church.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has our story.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Benedict spoke at his weekly general audience, appearing fatigued but with a strong voice. Speaking in Italian, he reiterated what he had said in Latin Monday to his cardinals.
POPE BENEDICT XVI: (Foreign language spoken)
POGGIOLI: Benedict said he took the decision in full freedom for the good of the church, after praying a long time and examining my conscience before God. The pope added that he was well aware of the gravity of such an act. But at the same time, aware that he lacked the physical and spiritual force the ministry requires.
Benedict's announcement is still reverberating inside the Vatican, plunging the Holy See into a state of uncertainty and confusion. At a briefing today, the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, was peppered with questions he could not answer, including: Will Benedict be able to make public statements after he retires; what will he wear - the white of the pope, the red of a cardinal or the black of a priest; and when will the papal ring and seal be destroyed, as is required by church rules.
Lombardi said his office is still waiting for instructions on numerous issues.
FATHER FEDERICO LOMBARDI: It is not decided what his title exactly will be after the renunciation.
POGGIOLI: But the most persistent question Vatican watchers are asking is what effect will the existence of a former pope have on the cardinals, who will convene in conclave to elect his successor.
LOMBARDI: Benedict XVI will surely say absolutely nothing about the process of the election. He will be retired.
POGGIOLI: This afternoon, Benedict presided over Ash Wednesday services inside St. Peter's Basilica.
(SOUNDBITE OF A CHOIR)
POGGIOLI: Visibly tired, behind a procession of cardinals, the Pope was wheeled down the central aisle as a choir sang. In his homily, he lamented how at times the church is undermined.
BENEDICT XVI: (Foreign language spoken)
POGGIOLI: Benedict spoke in particular of attempts to divide the church and divisions within the clergy. He urged that selfishness and rivalries be overcome.
This last statement could be a reference to the infighting and tensions inside the Roman Curia, the church bureaucracy, that many Vatican analysts say plagued Benedict's papacy from the start.
Today's Mass is likely to be Benedict's last public ceremony. The Holy See announced that he will spend his last day at the Vatican, February 28th, attending a farewell ceremony with his cardinals, and then fly by helicopter to the papal summer residence south of Rome.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.