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  • John Thavis

The pope’s heartfelt goodbye — and a nod to the Curia

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.

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