No one knows how to throw a love fest quite like the Vatican. And on Wednesday morning, for the occasion of Pope Benedict XVI’s last public appearance, the dark cloud of scandal gave way to sunny celebration—at least for a few hours, anyway.
Nearly 150,000 people gathered in St. Peter’s Square and the surrounding streets to bid the soon-to-be former pope adieu. Some 50,000 pilgrims had prime seats in the core of the cobbled piazza, flanked by Bernini’s colonnades that wrap around the main square. The rest stood watching the pope on giant screens that had been erected for the occasion. Bagpipers played festive tunes. A cappella choirs sang hymns. Romans did as Romans do and came to the square to mark yet another historic moment in their city. The pilgrims cheered and chanted, holding massive banners thanking Benedict for his dedication to the church. The mood was something like a funeral for the living, a transitional moment full of Vatican pageantry and red-capped cardinals, seemingly necessary to mark the end of one papacy and pave the way for another.
But on the sidelines, away from the pipe organ hymns and chanting pilgrims, the feeling was more that of “good riddance” than “goodbye.” About two dozen protesters held up signs and pictures of children abused by predatory priests. They were quickly whisked away from the main square, but their presence was a small reminder that not everyone is sad to see off the pope on his last day. David Clohessy, founder of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, and himself an abuse survivor, held a press conference on the eve of Benedict’s last hurrah in which he blamed the pontiff for not doing enough to protect the children and asked him to take care of one last order of business before he leaves his post on February 28. "We're here to make a last-ditch plea to Pope Benedict to use the remaining hours of his papacy to take decisive action to protect kids,” Clohessy said.
At exactly 8 p.m. Thursday, the Swiss Guards who protect him will leave their posts and return to Rome in a symbolic act to signify that the papal chair is empty.
That chance could come tomorrow. On Thursday morning, Benedict will hold an audience with all the cardinals in Rome, including those who have traveled to mark his last public audience, and including many of the cardinal electors who will choose his replacement. That will be his last opportunity before the conclave to express his wishes for the future of the church, and it would be a prime opportunity to tell his princes to clean up the so-called house of God. Among the members of the audience will be the former archbishop of Los Angeles Roger Mahony, whose presence in Rome—despite the Vatican’s admission of Mahony’s wrongdoings in managing the Los Angeles diocese child sex-abuse scandals—has drawn harsh criticism. Another cardinal who will get to have the pope’s last blessing will be former archbishop of Boston Bernard Law, who resigned in 2002 over a child-abuse scandal. Law doesn’t get to vote in the upcoming conclave because he is over the age of 80, but his presence at the papal blessing is a thorn in the side of survivors of the church’s many sins. After the cardinal audience and a celebratory lunch, the pope will prepare to leave the pontifical apartments.
Around 5 p.m. Thursday, Benedict will leave Vatican City for the last time as pope. He will be flown by helicopter to the pontifical summer residence in Castel Gandolfo in the Roman foothills, where he will stay until the restoration work on the Vatican City monastery where he will live is complete. At exactly 8 p.m. Thursday, the Swiss Guards who protect him will leave their posts and return to Rome in a symbolic act to signify that the papal chair is empty. The Vatican will then send a notice to all the elector cardinals, summoning them to Rome for congregational meetings, set to begin on Monday, March 4. Only then will they set the date for the conclave to elect a replacement whose daunting task is to fix a very broken church.
Watch Pope Benedict's epic last ride.