Ovation for Pope Benedict at final public mass
By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - A capacity crowd in St Peter's Basilica gave Pope Benedict a thunderous standing ovation on Wednesday at an emotional last public Mass before he resigns at the end of the month.
"Thank you. Now, let's return to prayer," the 85-year-old pontiff said, bringing an end to several minutes of applause that clearly moved him. In an unusual gesture, bishops took off their mitres in a sign of respect and a few of them wept.
One of the priests at the altar, which according to tradition rests above the tomb of St Peter, took out a handkerchief to dry his tears.
The Mass was moved to St Peter's from a venue in Rome so more people could attend. Hundreds of others waited outside.
Hours earlier in the Vatican's modern audience hall, a visibly moved Benedict tried to assure his worldwide flock, saying he was confident his decision to step down would not hurt the Church.
The Vatican, meanwhile, 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 that he will step down on February 28.
It was the first time Benedict, 85, who will retire to a convent inside the Vatican, exchanging the splendor of his 16th century Apostolic Palace for a sober modern residence, had uttered the words "future pope" in public. Continued...