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Mary Posani/MEDILL

Pope Benedict XVI rides in the popemobile and waves to tens of thousands of visitors at his final papal audience Wednesday morning.

Arrivederci! Americans join farewell to Pope Benedict XVI

by Mary Posani and Kate Van Winkle
Feb 27, 2013

Mary Posani and Kate Van Winkle/MEDILL


VATICAN CITY – “Viva, viva Papa!” and “Benedetto!” rang out through St. Peter’s Square Wednesday as tens of thousands of pilgrims from around the world and students from across America gathered for Pope Benedict XVI’s final papal audience.

Visitors waved flags, hoisted banners and painted their faces in support of Pope Benedict XVI during the final full day of his papacy. The environment was electric as pilgrims pressed into St. Peter’s Square bearing symbols of love for the retiring pontiff.

“The atmosphere, the cheers, the affection for the pope, the signs – the huge signs that you would see – those things take a lot of work. You don’t just make those overnight,” said Brother Daniel Rolczynski, a student at Rome’s Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum.

Rolczynski, originally from the Twin Cities, said Pope Benedict XVI’s final address was an opportunity for followers to show support for the pontiff as he prepares to step down Thursday.

“I have taken this step in full awareness of its severity and also its novelty, but with a deep peace of mind,” Pope Benedict XVI said in his address. “Loving the church also means having the courage to make difficult, trying choices, having ever before oneself the good of the church and not one’s own.”

Resounding applause met his words in an audience that clearly supported the pontiff but also honored his decision to resign after eight years as head of the Roman Catholic Church.    

“I think it has a really special feel because it’s his last audience,” said Kathryn Plazek, a theology graduate student from Pittsburgh. “You really feel the support of the crowd and the gratitude of Benedict at the same time.”

The pope began his final address with words of thanks for those who attended his farewell, many of whom arrived more than three hours before the scheduled event to get places in the square. He also thanked those who have helped him fulfill his duties.

“It is not only God, whom I desire to thank,” he said. “A pope is not alone in guiding St. Peter’s barque, even if it is his first responsibility.”

Earlier this month, Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world when he announced that he would be stepping down as pope effective Feb. 28. He attributed the decision to advanced age and waning strength of body and mind, though speculation is rampant about other possible reasons.

The last pope to resign was Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 to resolve a schism with three rival popes in power, though the church considers Gregory the legitimate leader of the time.

Pope Benedict XVI will be known as the “pope emeritus” and will continue to reside in the Vatican, though he will have no involvement in the selection or rule of the next pope. He served as the 265th pope. 

Though the farewell marked a turning point in his own life, the pope used his final papal audience to express his continuing dedication to his faith and to Catholics worldwide.

“When he spoke about the decision he made and what went into it and what factors he was considering, everything was about what is going to be best for the church,” said Rolczynski. “That was what struck me the most.”

In a time when the church faces numerous challenges as one of the world’s largest religions, Pope Benedict XVI expressed the faith of an adoring crowd: “Ma vediamo come la Chiesa è viva oggi!” (“We can see that the Church is alive today!")

“I was impressed that he was saying the church is alive,” said Suzanne Ouyang, a graduate student from Washington. “You can see that just looking around here. Open your eyes and see that there are people from everywhere of every age.”