Looking serene after his tough decision to become the first pope to abdicate in 600 years, Pope Benedict XVI said goodbye to Catholics in an emotional and personal speech that recalled pain as well as happiness in his troubled eight years at the Vatican.
Making his last public appearance before his retirement on Thursday, he evoked the bumpy voyage of Jesus and the apostles on the Sea of Galilee, an apparent reference to his times as leader of a church bombarded with sex scandals and other problems that shook the confidence of many Catholics. He said the Lord gave him "so many days of sun and light breezes, when the fishing was abundant. But there were times when the waters were choppy and there were headwinds, as throughout the history of the church, and it looked like the Lord was sleeping."
Pope Benedict shocked the world's 1.1 billion Catholics on Feb. 11, when he revealed his decision not to die on the job, citing frailty. After resting for the past week, he said his farewells before an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 adoring Catholics who packed St. Peter's Square.
Dressed entirely in white, he worked the crowd on a sunny day from the Popemobile, kissing babies as the people cheered him on and waved flags that said "Grazie" – thank you.
"Today is an historic day," said Father Francesco Novajovsky, a Latvian priest who works in the Curia, the Vatican's administrative arm. "It's sad to see him go because we love the pope."
Pope Benedict was surrounded by most of the cardinals who will select his replacement next month in a fast-track vote designed to ensure the next pope is in place well before Easter. Canada's Cardinal Marc Ouellet is widely cited as a front-runner.
The Pope, who is 85, and noticeably hunched as he took his few steps from the Popemobile to the podium overlooking the square, did his best to smile, seeming relieved that the ordeal that sapped his physical and mental energy was about to end. He explained once again that his decision to resign was not selfish. "To love the church means also to have the courage to take difficult, painful decisions, always keeping the good of the church in mind, not oneself," he said.
He hinted that he would relish his new life, which will be devoted to prayer, writing and teaching. In an apparent warning to his successor, he said a new pope "no longer has any privacy. He belongs forever and totally to everyone, to all the church."
Cardinal Ouellet remains among the top candidates, according to ambassadors to the Holy See and Vatican watchers. After watching Pope Benedict's last appearance, Indian archbishop Peter Brabhu called the Canadian "one of the outstanding cardinals."
But he is said to have strong competitors, including Cardinal Antonio Tagle of the Philippines, who is 55 – boyish by cardinal standards – and is considered media friendly and magnetic. He also comes from a region where the Catholic church is expanding. In Europe, church attendance and the number of citizens who describe themselves as "Catholic" is in free fall.
"It makes no difference to me who becomes next pope, but I feel that, whoever he is, he should be charismatic because he is the face of the church," said Linas Baltrusaitis, 29, a Latvian priest who studies communications at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. "He has to be good at social communications."
Ambassadors to the Holy See think the Italian cardinals are keen to elect an Italian pope after seeing the Vatican under control of a Polish pope, John Paul II, and a German pope, the former Joseph Ratzinger, for 35 years. Of the 116 cardinals eligible to vote, 28 are Italian, giving them considerable sway should they decide to vote as a bloc.
But George Weigel, the American author of Evangelical Catholicism , a book about reform in the church of the 21st century, said that the pope could come from any country, "because the church is now genuinely a global church."
Still, he thinks the odds of an Italian pope are low because of the problems in the Curia, the administrative arm of the Vatican, which he described as "dysfunctional." The Curia is considered an Italian power base.
Cardinal Ouellet was very close to Pope Benedict. The Pope made him head of the Congregation of Bishops, which overseas the selection of bishops. "He has the second most important job in the Catholic Church, some would say," Mr. Weigel said. "It's a huge job."
Cardinal Ouellet is not giving interviews or hinting in any way that he is keen to become pope. Self promotion is considered taboo. Cardinals who lobby openly for the job typically disqualify themselves.
LAST DAY ON THE JOB
Thursday, Feb. 28
12 p.m local time: Pope Benedict will meet with cardinals at the Vatican to say goodbye.
5 p.m.: Pope will be flown by helicopter to the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo, near Rome.
6 p.m.: Pope will appear at a window of the papal villa overlooking the public square of Castel Gandolfo to bless the crowd.
8 p.m.: Benedict's resignation will officially take effect. The Swiss Guards who stand as sentries at the residence will march off in a sign that the papacy is vacant.
THE NEXT POPE
The Vatican is expected to announce on Friday the date of the cardinals' conclave to choose a new pope.
Earlier this week, Pope Benedict changed parts of a 1996 constitution so that the conclave could begin earlier than the 15 days after the papacy becomes vacant, as prescribed by the previous law.
The conclave is expected to start between March 10 and March 15. That would give the new pope about two weeks to prepare for the Easter ceremonies. Held in the Sistine Chapel, the vote typically lasts two days.