Pontiff calms fears of flock
A visibly moved Pope Benedict tried to reassure his worldwide flock yesterday about his shock decision to become the first pontiff in centuries to resign, saying he was confident it would not hurt the church.
The Vatican announced that a conclave to elect his successor would start sometime between March 15 and March 20 in keeping with church rules about the timing of such gatherings after the papal see becomes vacant.
"Continue to pray for me, for the church and for the future pope," he said in unscripted remarks at the start of his weekly general audience, his first public appearance since his shock decision on Monday to step down on February 28.
It was the first time Benedict, 85, who will retire to a convent inside the Vatican, had uttered the words "future pope" in public.
Church officials are still so stunned by Benedict's move that Vatican experts have yet to decide what his title will be and whether he will continue to wear the white of a pope, the red of a cardinal or the black of an ordinary priest.
Benedict's voice sounded strong but he was clearly moved.
His eyes appeared to be watering as he reacted to the thunderous applause in the Vatican's vast, modern audience hall, packed with more than 8000 people.
In brief remarks in Italian that mirrored those he read in Latin to stunned cardinals on Monday, he appeared to try to calm Catholics' fears of the unknown.
He message was that God would continue to guide the church.
"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 said.
He said he was "well aware of the gravity of such an act," but also that he no longer had the strength required to run the 1.2 billion-member Roman Catholic Church, which has been beset by a string of scandals both in Rome and around the world.
Benedict said he was sustained by the "certainty that the church belongs to Christ, who will never stop guiding it and caring for it".
He suggested that the faithful should also feel comforted by this. He said he had "felt almost physically" the affection and kindness he had received since he announced the decision.
When Benedict resigned on Monday, a Vatican spokesman said the pontiff did not fear schism in the church after his decision to step down.
Some 115 cardinals under the age of 80 will be eligible to enter a secret conclave to elect his successor.
Cardinals around the world have already begun informal consultations by phone and email to construct a profile of the man they think would be best suited to lead the church in a period of continuing crisis.
The likelihood that the next pope would be a younger man and perhaps a non-Italian was increasing, particularly because of the many mishaps caused by Benedict's mostly Italian top aides.