Pope Benedict XVI has celebrated his last public mass ahead of his February 28 retirement. Beginning Lent solemnities, he called for an end to "individualism and rivalry" and asked Catholics for their prayers.
The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics told worshippers crowded into St. Peter's Basilica, including dozens of Cardinals, on Wednesday to end divisions and what he termed "religious hypocrisy."
In an apparent reference to scandals over issues such as pedophilia and secrecy breaches in church institutions, Benedict said "the face of the Church is sometimes marred by sins against the unity of the Church and divisions in the clergy."
Near the service's close, he was given thunderous applause, and, in an unusual gesture, bishops took off their mitres in a sign of respect. A few of them wept.
The pope's long-time deputy, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said: "We wouldn't be sincere, Your Holiness, if we didn't tell you that there's a veil of sadness on our hearts this evening."
To reach the Basilica's vast nave, a tired-looking pope had been transported on a mobile platform to preside over the Ash Wednesday service. It marks the start of Lent, the period leading up to the annual Easter celebration of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection.
'For the good of the church'
Earlier on Wednesday, thousands had gathered to hear the 85-year-old give his first public address since his announcement on Monday that because of failing strength he would become the first pontiff in nearly six centuries to resign.
On Wednesday, he told the crowd of more than 8,000 people in the Vatican's main auditorium that he was stepping down for the "good of the church" and was fully aware of the magnitude of his decision.
"Keep praying for me, for the Church and for the future pope, Benedict said, his voice wavering with emotion.
"I did this in full liberty for the good of the Church, after praying for long and examining my conscience before God, fully aware of the gravity of such an act," he said.
During that event he was also interrupted by applause, and by chants of "Benedetto," his name in Italian.
Conclave before Easter
The Vatican administration announced Wednesday that a conclave of some 115 cardinals to select the German-born Benedict's successor would convene sometime between March 15 and March 20 – before Easter.
No clear candidate for successor has emerged, but rumors are rife that it could be a younger man from outside Italy, including Europe, the Americas, Africa or Asia.
Benedict's papacy has been faulted by experts for communication mishaps attributed mostly to his Italian top aides.
Benedict's resignation has eclipsed campaigning for the February 24-25 election in Italy, with analysts saying it could have an impact on the outcome.
The pope will hold his final general audience on February 27 before retiring to a little-known monastery within Vatican walls, just a stone's throw away from his successor.
ipj/kms (dpa, AFP, AP, Reuters)