CNS PHOTO | PAUL HARING
Pope Benedict leaves his final general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Feb. 27.
VATICAN CITY – The Clementine Hall is traditionally the place where cardinals bid farewell to popes at the end of a pontificate, but usually when the pope in question is lying in state before his funeral.
But on Feb. 28, hours before resigning from the papacy, Pope Benedict briefly addressed the College of Cardinals, calling for unity and harmony among the men who will choose his successor and pledging his "unconditional reverence and obedience" to the next pope.
Pope Benedict addressed 144 cardinals, including many of the 115 under the age of 80 who are eligible and expected to vote in the upcoming conclave.
"I will continue to be close to you in prayer, especially in the next days, that you may be fully docile to the action of the Holy Spirit in the election of the new pope," Pope Benedict told the gathering in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace.
"May the Lord show you what is wanted of you. Among you, among the College of Cardinals, there is also the future pope, to whom today I promise my unconditional reverence and obedience."
The cardinals are expected to begin meeting March 4 to plan the papal election.
Looking back on his almost eight-year pontificate, Pope Benedict recalled "very beautiful moments of radiant light on the path of the Church, together with moments in which the occasional cloud thickened in the sky."
The pope invoked God's help in building unity, "so that the College of Cardinals might be like an orchestra, where diversities, expressive of the Universal Church, always run together to a superior and harmonious concord."
Pope Benedict also recalled the previous day's general audience in St. Peter's Square, attended by an estimated 150,000 people, saying that the gathering demonstrated that the "Church is a living body, animated by the Holy Spirit, and truly lives by the strength of God."
Referring to the work of the late German theologian Father Romano Guardini, the pope said the Church keeps alive the mystery of the incarnation since its members "offer to God their own flesh and, in their very poverty and humility, become capable of generating Christ today in the world."
The cardinals responded with a standing ovation.
Prior to the pope's remarks, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, addressed a short tribute to the departing pontiff, whose resignation was scheduled to take effect at 8 p.m. the same day.
"With great trepidation the cardinal fathers present in Rome rally around you today to show once again their profound affection and express to you their deep gratitude for your witness of self-denying apostolic service, for the good of the Church of Christ and all humanity," the cardinal said.
Following the brief ceremony, Pope Benedict received individual greetings from the assembled cardinals and from officials of the Roman Curia, the Church's central administration at the Vatican. Most kissed the pope's ring, with some also genuflecting before they exchanged a few words with the pope; a few were brought up in wheelchairs.
The previous day, Pope Benedict delivered an unusually personal and emotional farewell address, thanking the faithful around the world for their support and assuring them that he would remain in their service even in retirement.
"I will continue to accompany the path of the Church with prayer and reflection, with that dedication to the Lord and to his bride that I have tried to live every day till now and that I want to live always," the pope told a crowd in St. Peter's Square Feb. 27, the eve of his resignation.
Cheering pilgrims waved national flags and banners with slogans such as "always with the pope" and "you will never be alone."
Abandoning his usual practice of giving a catechetical talk on a devotional text or theme at public audiences, the pope spoke about his time as pope and his historic decision to resign.
He looked tired but composed as he read his speech, and he smiled at the frequent interruptions by applause.
Pope Benedict recalled his almost eight-year pontificate as a time of "joy and light, but also difficult moments."
"The Lord has given us so many days of sun and light breeze, days in which the catch of fish has been abundant," he said, likening himself to St. Peter on the Sea of Galilee.
"There have also been moments in which the waters were turbulent and the wind contrary, as throughout the history of the Church, and the Lord seemed to be asleep," he said.
"But I have always known that the Lord is in that boat and that the boat of the Church is not mine, it is not ours, but it is his and he does not let it sink."
The pope announced Feb. 11 that he would step down because his "strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry."
He told the crowd that he had made his decision "in full consciousness of its gravity and also novelty, but with profound serenity of soul."
Although he would be retiring to a life of prayer, meditation and study in a monastery inside Vatican City, he said, he would continue to serve and sacrifice for the Church.
"Whoever assumes the Petrine ministry no longer has any privacy," he said. "He belongs always and totally to all, to the whole Church.
"My decision to renounce the active exercise of the ministry does not revoke this," he said.
"I am not returning to private life, a life of trips, meetings, receptions, conferences, etc. I am not abandoning the cross, but remain in a new way beside the crucified Lord. I no longer carry the power of office for the government of the Church, but in the service of prayer I remain, so to speak, within St. Peter’s precincts."
The pope thanked his collaborators in the Vatican, making special mention of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who as secretary of state is the highest Vatican official.
Bertone, who has drawn blame for the mismanagement sensationally documented in the 2012 "VatiLeaks" of confidential correspondence, "has accompanied me faithfully in these years," the pope said.
The conclusion of the pope's talk set off a two-minute standing ovation, which he acknowledged by smiling broadly and standing with outstretched arms.
The audience was also the last opportunity for large numbers of the public to see the pope in person before his resignation was to take effect at 8 p.m. Feb. 28.
He was expected to greet several thousand people that evening in the small town square of Castel Gandolfo, 25 km southeast of Rome, in front of the papal summer residence where he will live until the end of renovations at his permanent home in Vatican City.