· At the last General Audience of the Pontificate, Benedict XVI embraces the Church throughout the world ·
And the Pontiff explains that he is remaining with the Crucified Lord in a new way within the bounds of St Peter's
Not a return to private life nor abandonment of the Cross of Christ, but a service of prayer carried out still “within the bounds of St Peter's”. With these words Benedict XVI explained the meaning of his renunciation of the papacy to the enormous crowd of the faithful that overflowed from St Peter's Square on Wednesday morning, 27 February, for the last General Audience of the Pontificate.
Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate and in the Priesthood,
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I thank you for coming in such large numbers to my last General Audience. I thank you with all my heart! I am truly touched! And I see the Church is alive! And I think we must also say “thank you” to the Creator for the beautiful weather he is still giving us now, even in winter.
Like the Apostle Paul in the biblical text we have heard, I too feel in my heart that above all I should thank God who guides the Church and gives her growth, who sows his word and thus nourishes faith in his people. At this moment my mind reaches out to embrace the entire Church that has spread throughout the world, and I thank God for the “news” I have been able to receive in these years of my Petrine ministry concerning faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and for the love that really circulates within the Body of the Church and makes her live in love and in the hope that opens us and directs us toward life in its fullness, toward the heavenly homeland.
I feel that I am carrying everyone in prayer, in a present that is God's, carrying every meeting, every journey, every Pastoral Visit. I gather everything and everyone in prayer to entrust them to the Lord so that we may be fully aware of his will, with every kind of wisdom and spiritual intelligence, and behave in a manner worthy of him, of his love, bearing fruit in every good work (cf. Col 1:9-10).
At this moment, I feel within me deep trust, because I know, we all know, that the Gospel's word of truth is the Church's strength, it is her life. The Gospel purifies and renews, bears fruit, wherever the community of believers listens to it and accepts God's grace in truth and charity. This is my trust, this is my joy.
When on 19 April almost eight years ago I accepted the Petrine Ministry, I had the firm conviction that has always accompanied me: this certainty that the Church lives by the Word of God. At that moment, as I have already said on several occasions, the words that echoed in my heart were: “Lord, why are you asking this of me, and what are you asking of me?. What you are placing on my shoulders is a great burden, but if you ask it of me, I will cast the nets at your word, certain that you will guide me, even with all my weaknesses”.
And eight years later I can say that the Lord has guided me, he has been close to me, I have been able to perceive his presence daily. It has been a stretch of the Church's journey chequered with joy and light, but also with far from easy moments. I felt like St Peter with the Apostles in the boat on the Sea of Galilee: the Lord has given us so many days of sunshine and a light breeze, days on which the catch has been abundant; then there have also been times when the waters were turbulent, when there was a contrary wind, as in the entire history of the Church, and when the Lord seemed to be asleep. Yet I have always known that the Lord is in that boat and I have always known that the barque of the Church does not belong to me, it does not belong to us, but to him. And the Lord does not let her sink; it is he who steers her, also through the men he chose, of course, for this is what he wanted. This was and is a certainty that nothing can dim. Moreover this is why today my heart is brimming over with gratitude to God, for he has never left the Church as a whole – or me – without his comfort, his light or his love.
We are in the Year of Faith which I wanted precisely in order to strengthen our faith in God in a context that seems to be putting him increasingly in the background. I would like to ask one and all to renew their firm trust in the Lord, to entrust themselves like children to God's arms, certain that those arms never fail to hold us and are what enable us to walk on, every day, even when we are weary.
I would like everyone to feel beloved by that God who gave his Son for us and who has shown us his boundless love. I would like each and every one to feel the joy of being Christian. A beautiful prayer to recite daily in the morning says: “I adore thee, O my God, and I love thee with all my heart. I give thee thanks that thou has created me and made me a Christian”. Yes, we are happy with the gift of faith; it is the most precious good, one which no one can take from us! Let us thank the Lord for it every day, with prayers and with a consistent Christian life. God loves us, but he expects us to love him too!
However, it is not only God whom I wish to thank at this moment. A pope is not alone in steering the barque of Peter, even if he is primarily responsible. I have never felt alone in bearing the joy and the burden of the Petrine ministry; the Lord set beside me so many people who have helped me and been close to me.
First of all you, dear Brother Cardinals: your wisdom, your advice and your friendship have been precious to me; my co-workers, starting with my Secretary of State who has accompanied me faithfully in these years; the Secretariat of State and the whole of the Roman Curia, as well as all those who serve the Holy See in the various sectors. So often they do not come to the fore, they stay in the shade; but precisely in silence, in daily dedication with a spirit of faith and humility they have been a reliable and trustworthy support for me. A special thought for the Church of Rome, my Diocese! I cannot forget my Brothers in the Episcopate and in the Priesthood, the consecrated people, the entire People of God: on my Pastoral Visits, at the Audiences, on the Journeys, I have always perceived great attention and deep affection; but I too have loved each and every one, without distinction, with that pastoral charity which is the heart of every pastor, especially of the Bishop of Rome, of the Successor of the Apostle Peter. Every day, with a father's heart, I have carried each one of you in my prayers.
Then I would like my greeting and my gratitude to reach everyone: a Pope's heart expands to the whole world. And I would like to express my gratitude to the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, which makes the great family of nations present. Here I am also thinking of all those who work for good communication and whom I thank for their important service.
At this point I would also like to offer my truly heartfelt thanks to the many people throughout the world who in these past weeks have sent me touching tokens of attention, friendship and prayer. No, the Pope is never alone, only now he experiences this once again on such a large scale that it moves his heart. The Pope belongs to everyone and a great many people feel very close to him. It is true that I receive letters from the important figures of the world – from heads of state, from religious leaders, from representatives of the world of culture and so forth. Yet I also receive a multitude of letters from simple people who write to me simply from the depths of their heart and make me feel their affection that comes from being together with Jesus Christ, in the Church. These people do not write to me as, for example, one writes to a prince or a grandee with whom one is not acquainted. They write to me as brothers and sisters, or as sons and daughters, with the sentiment of very affectionate family ties. Here what the Church is can be felt tangibly – not an organization or an association for religious or humanitarian ends, but a living body, a communion of brothers and sisters in the Body of Jesus Christ, which unites us all. Experiencing the Church in this way and being able, as it were, to feel the strength of her truth and her love is a cause of joy in an epoch in which so many people are speaking of her decline. But we see that the Church is alive today!
In these past months I have felt my strength diminishing and I asked God insistently, in prayer, to illuminate me with his light so as to enable me to take the best decision, not for my own good, but for the good of the Church. I took this step in full knowledge of its gravity and also its newness, but in a profoundly serene state of mind. Loving the Church also means having the courage to make difficult, anguishing decisions, always with a view to the good of the Church and not of one's self.
May I be permitted here to return once again to 19 April 2005. The seriousness of the decision lay in the very fact that from that very moment I was always and for ever engaged by the Lord. The man who takes on the Petrine Ministry no longer has any privacy – ever. He always, and totally, belongs to everyone, to the whole Church. The private dimension is as it were completely cut out of his life. I have been able to experience, and I am experiencing it at this very moment, that one receives life exactly when one gives it. I said earlier that many people who love the Lord also love the Successor of St Peter and are fond of him; that the Pope truly has brothers and sisters, sons and daughters throughout the world and that he feels safe in the embrace of your communion, because he no longer belongs to himself, he belongs to everyone and everyone belongs to him.
The “always” is also a “for ever” – there can be no return to the private sphere. My decision to renounce the active exercise of my ministry does not revoke this. I am not returning to private life, to a life of journeys, meetings, receptions, lectures, etc. I am not abandoning the cross but remaining in a new way with the Crucified Lord. I am no longer wielding the power of the office for the governance of the Church, but in the service of prayer I remain, so to speak, in the bounds of St Peter's. St Benedict, whose name I bear as Pope, will be a great example to me in this. He showed us the way to a life which, whether it is active or passive, belongs entirely to the work of God.
I thank you, each and everyone, also for the respect and understanding with which you have accepted this most important decision. I shall continue to accompany the Church on her journey with prayers and reflection, with that dedication to the Lord and to his Bride which I have endeavoured to live every day until now and which I always want to live. I ask you to remember me before God, and, especially, to pray for the Cardinals who are required to carry out such an important task, and for the new Successor of the Apostle Peter: May the Lord accompany him with the light and strength of his Spirit.
Let us invoke the motherly intercession of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God and of the Church, so that she may accompany each one of us and the entire ecclesial community; Let us entrust ourselves to her with profound trust. Dear friends! God guides his Church, he always sustains her, even and especially in difficult moments. Let us never lose his this vision of faith, which is the one true view of the journey of the Church and of the world. In our heart, in the heart of each one of you, may there always be the joyful certainty that the Lord is beside us, he does not abandon us, he is close and envelopes us in his love. Many thanks!
St. Peter’s Square
Dec. 12, 2018
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