VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- In one of his last public appearances, Pope Benedict XVI told an overflow crowd in St. Peter's Square Feb. 24 that his upcoming retirement does not mean he is abandoning the church, but that he will be serving it in a new way, through prayer and meditation.
At noon, the pope appeared at his window in the Apostolic Palace to pray the Angelus, a papal Sunday ritual that will not be repeated until after the election of a new pope.
Despite the blustery weather, turnout was several times the usual for such occasions -- easily more than 150,000, with some estimates as high as a quarter of a million. The crowd filled the square, except where prevented by barricades, and spilled out into the Via della Conciliazione. Many groups held signs expressing gratitude and affection -- "You are not alone," one read -- and national flags from countries as far away as Brazil.
Benedict was the "the rock: solid, strong and unwavering and yet kind and compassionate and loving at the same time," said Balthazar Aguirre of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Daly City, Calif. He and his two sisters took time off from work to come to Rome for the pope's last week as the head of the universal church.
"Prayer doesn't mean isolating one's self from the world and its contradictions," the pope said, in his commentary on the day's Gospel reading (Lk 9:28-36). "Prayer leads one back to the path, to action.
"Christian existence," he said, "consists in a continuous climbing of the mountain for an encounter with God, in order to descend again bearing the love and strength derived from it, so as to serve our brothers and sisters with the same love of God."
If the relevance to his Feb. 28 resignation was not already clear, the pope made the connection explicit:
"I feel that this word of God is directed in particular to me, in this moment of my life. The Lord calls me to 'climb the mountain,' to dedicate myself even more to prayer and meditation. But this does not mean abandoning the church; on the contrary, if God asks this of me it is precisely so that I may continue to serve (the church) with the same dedication and the same love with which I have done so till now, but in a way more suited to my age and strength."
Speaking these words, Pope Benedict was interrupted twice by applause, and afterward received an ovation 30 seconds long. He smiled broadly, thanked the crowd, and added, "Let us thank God for the bit of sun he has granted us."
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A video of Pope Benedict speaking before the Angelus is available at http://youtu.be/_1K9MXnlEQo.