CNS PHOTO | PAUL HARING
Pope Benedict waves as he arrives to lead the Angelus from the window of his apartment overlooking St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Feb. 17.
The Catholic faithful have given Pope Benedict a warm reception in his two major public appearances since his Feb. 11 announcement that he will resign from the papal office on Feb. 28.
More than 50,000 people gathered in St. Peter's Square Feb. 17 as the pope came to his studio window to lead the Sunday Angelus prayer. When Pope Benedict made his appearance, a great roar of applause rose up from those assembled.
The Angelus was the first completely public, no-tickets-needed event since the pope announced his resignation.
An hour before the Angelus, thousands of people were already in the square. The young staked out places by sitting on the cold cobblestones. Others previewed their banners for the press, including some that said: "You are Peter. Stay" and "Thank you, Holy Father. We love you very much."
In his remarks following the Angelus, the pope called this an unusual time for him and for the Church, but did not specifically mention his resignation. He thanked people for their affection and asked them to continue their prayers.
Shortly after the event, the pope began his annual week-long Lenten retreat, this year led by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture.
Earlier, at his Feb. 13 weekly general audience, Pope Benedict thanked the faithful for their love and prayers and asked them to pray for his successor.
"I have felt, almost physically in these days – which haven't been easy for me – the strength that prayers, love for the Church and prayers for me bring me," the pope told some 7,000 people at the indoor audience.
"As you know, I have decided . . ." he said, before the capacity crowd broke out in prolonged applause, bringing a smile to the 85-year-old pope's face.
The pope appeared tired but smiled frequently and at times broadly during the hour-long audience.
"The certainty that the Church is Christ's and he will never cease guiding it and caring for it sustains me and enlightens me.
"Continue to pray for me, for the Church, for the future pope," he said in conclusion, drawing an ovation a full minute long.
One cardinal who was in the room when the pope announced his resignation said the announcement was a "surprise, like thunder that gives no notice that it's coming."
Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for Divine Worship, said, "We were about to get the blessing and he said, 'Please sit down. I have something to say important for the Church.'"
From the first words of Pope Benedict's statement, which he delivered in Latin, Arinze began to fear that it would mean the pope's resignation, he told Catholic News Service.
As the pope's meaning became unambiguous, the cardinals looked at one another "in silence, in surprise," Arinze said. "At the end there was silence."
After the pope left the room, "we did not go away," the cardinal said. "We got together in little groups, as it were, each one asking, 'What has happened?' But there was no doubt about esteem for the Holy Father, for his courage and his love for the Church."
Cardinal Raffaele Farina said the cardinals in the room "were all surprised, at a loss, frozen, no one had expected it."
"Many faces were stained with tears," he told the Italian daily La Repubblica. The pope made "a gesture of great responsibility. He did it with style, aware that the Church needed a new guide who is stronger, more stable and more energetic."
Some Church officials echoed the words of Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley, who said the pope's decision "will obviously have an effect going forward."
Once in six centuries does not set a rule, but the understanding reception that the pope's decision has received within the Church suggests that it will not be another 600 years before it happens again.
While he obviously talked to a few people about it, the 85-year-old pope described his decision as a matter of personal conscience, which implies he may have discussed it with a trusted spiritual guide, but did not seek broad consultation.
Even though Pope Benedict and his older brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, are close, the elder Ratzinger told reporters he was "very surprised" by his brother's decision.
Ratzinger told the British Broadcasting Corp. that his brother had been considering stepping down for months; he also told the BBC that the pope's doctor had advised him not to take any more trans-Atlantic trips.
"When he got to the second half of his 80s, he felt that his age was showing and that he was gradually losing the abilities he may have had and that it takes to fulfill this office properly," Ratzinger told the BBC.
An ecumenical partner and esteemed theological colleague of Pope Benedict's said he was not totally surprised by the pope's decision.
Anglican Bishop Rowan Williams, who stepped down in late December as the head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, told Vatican Radio he and Pope Benedict spoke last March about the possibility of being able to retire and devote one's life completely to prayer and study.
"In our last conversation, I was very conscious that he was recognizing his own frailty, and it did cross my mind to wonder whether this was a step he might think about," Williams told Vatican Radio.
Meanwhile, Orthodox Church leaders paid tribute to Pope Benedict and voiced hope that Catholic-Orthodox ties would develop under his successor.
"Pope Benedict XVI is not a media star, but a man of the Church; and in the mass media, he is continuously criticized for traditionalism and conservatism," said Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, chairman of the Russian Orthodox external Church relations department.
"But these are precisely the merits which are of credit for millions of Christians, both Catholic and non-Catholic, who seek to preserve traditional Christian spiritual and moral values."
The metropolitan, who has met the pope three times since his March 2009 appointment, told Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency that Russian Orthodox-Vatican ties had "acquired a positive dynamic" since the 2005 election of the pope.
Pope Benedict was "well-versed in the tradition of the Orthodox Church while having the sensitivity that makes it possible for him to build relations," he said.