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Those waiting for Pope Benedict to open his heart on the question of his resignation were not disappointed today.

In his final general audience, the day before he abdicates the papal throne, the pope spoke in an unusually personal way about his decision and offered a frank assessment of his pontificate – both the moments of joy and moments of “rough waters.”

His words appeared designed to counter the popular media image of a discouraged and defeated pope who felt let down by the top officials of the Roman Curia.

He went out of his way, in fact, to thank the Curia, in particular the secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who has been seen by many observers as a big part of the problem when it comes to Curia tensions and infighting.

Benedict also expressed gratitude to the many Vatican employees who “remain in the shadows, but who precisely in their silence and daily dedication … have been for me a sure and trusted support.”

Speaking to an overflow and enthusiastic crowd in St. Peter’s Square, the pope took issue with what has become a dominant narrative in the media: that of a pontiff so frustrated with the problems of church governance and ill-served by his aides that he felt constrained to leave the scene.

“I have never felt alone in bearing the joy and the weight of the papal ministry,” he said. He said he’s relied on cardinals and the Roman Curia for advice, and always felt the “attention and great affection” of Catholic faithful around the world.

And despite the disappointments of his pontificate – which he did not specify – the pope said he was left with the conviction that the church still offers the path to real happiness, even “at a time when so many people talk about its decline.”

Some of the pope’s words also could be read as cautionary advice to a successor, especially when he said that “whoever assumes the papal ministry has no more privacy.” He no longer belongs to himself, but belongs to everyone, and any “private dimension” of his life disappears, the pope said.

That goes for a retired pope, too, he added.

“I’m not returning to a private life, to a life of trips, meetings, receptions or conferences,” he said. Instead, he said he plans to emulate St. Benedict, his papal namesake, in leading a life dedicated completely to God.

In explaining his own decision to retire, the pope made a remark that might have been aimed at the cardinals who will soon gather to elect his successor: “To love the church also means having the courage to make difficult choices, agonizing choices, keeping one’s focus always on the good of the church and not on oneself.”

The pope ended his talk on a characteristic note, asking his audience to remember that God loves them. Then he sat back and, with a beaming smile, listened as the crowd gave him a prolonged ovation.

  • John Thavis

Good news today from the Vatican press office: the powers-that-be have decided to brief reporters during the cardinals’ daily pre-conclave meetings, which will probably begin March 4.

As I argued in my post yesterday (below), a news blackout on the cardinals’ meetings, called “general congregations,” would have simply fed the spiraling journalistic speculation about the coming conclave. The conclave remains a secret process, of course, but there was room for flexibility in the run-up meetings, when the cardinals will discuss priorities, directions and challenges for the church.

The Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, told reporters today that journalists would be briefed not only on logistical decisions made by the cardinals but would also be given “synthetic” summaries of the larger themes discussed.

Lombardi also said the cardinals could decide to meet twice a day, in morning and afternoon sessions. The official convocation will go out to cardinals March 1, the first full day of the “sede vacante,” so the first general congregation is not expected before Monday, March 4.

The Vatican today answered some of the nagging questions hanging over the papal resignation, including the title Pope Benedict will carry after he leaves office.

“His Holiness Benedict XVI, pope emeritus” or “Roman pontiff emeritus” is the proper way to address the retired pope, the Jesuit spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, told reporters.

On a practical level, it’s an issue that few people are expected to face, since the pope has said he plans to live behind the Vatican walls and avoid public appearances.

Father Lombardi said the pope would wear a “simple white cassock” after retiring. His famous red shoes will be set aside in favor of a pair of brown shoes he was given last year in Leon, Mexico – a city known for its footwear industry.

As expected, Benedict’s fisherman ring and the seal of his pontificate will be destroyed; how and when will be determined by the College of Cardinals.

The pope’s final public appearance will be a greeting to faithful in Castel Gandolfo, where the pope will arrive for an approximately two-month stay on the day of his resignation, Feb. 28. In another symbolic step, the Swiss Guards who serve the pope will leave their post outside the Castel Gandolfo villa at 8 p.m., the precise hour of papal resignation.

The Vatican spokesman said that during the countdown to resignation, the pope was receiving messages “of gratitude and understanding” from people all over the world, including many heads of state.

Meanwhile, efforts were being made to coordinate prayers among Catholics around the world on resignation day.

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