“I will simply be a pilgrim who is beginning the last part of his pilgrimage on earth.”
These were some of the last words of Pope Benedict XVI, which he cheerfully delivered to the crowd gathered in the square beneath the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo. Just a few hours later, his resignation took effect, and the Swiss Guards – who only guard the Pope of Rome – left their post.
Crowds of pilgrims had gathered in the square hours before the Pope’s arrival to Castel Gandolfo, praying the rosary, with all eyes facing the balcony where Benedict XVI would greet them for the last time as their Pontiff. The cheers swept the square when Benedict finally appeared at the window and delivered an unscripted address to those below. “I wish still with my heart, my love, my prayer, my reflection, with all my inner strength, to work for the common good and the good of the Church and of humanity,” he said. “And I feel very much supported by your affection.”
“Let’s go forward with the Lord for the good of the Church and the world.”
An Irish priest for the community of the Work of Jesus the High Priest, Fr. Patrick Cahill, was present in the square during the Pope’s address. “It’s emotional because it’s the end of an era,” he said. “People are happy for him, and yet sad to see him go.”
Acknowledging that a papal resignation is a historical event, Fr. Cahill noted the Holy Father had “thought about this for a long time and prayed about it. … He feels that this is the best way to serve the Church, so we honor his decision.”
“Obviously it leaves us in a very new situation now, because the conclave will begin soon enough,” he continued. “We’re praying and hoping for a good Holy Father to continue to guide us in what is a very stormy and dangerous time.”
Dominic Mougel and Kayla Trautman, American students studying near Castel Gandolfo, were also in the square during the Pope’s address.
“This was my first and last time seeing the Pope in person,” said Mougel, who arrived in Italy shortly after the Pope’s resignation was announced.
“It was an amazing experience, and it brought my faith together,” he said. “It was a great thing to witness.”
Trautman said she was touched when the Pope’s first words were of thanks. “He thanked this crowd of people who came to support him. It was a moving moment for me to watch him, who has done so much for all of us, to thank us, instead of us thanking him.”
Having never been overseas before this trip, she went on to note the significance of being in Italy at such a historic time. “Not only do I get to be here and experience the culture, but I was here for the Pope’s last audience as pope. And I also get to experience the new pope. Having two popes in one visit is an experience of a lifetime.”
Dominic McGrattan, a seminarian for the Irish College in Rome, shared his sentiments about seeing the Holy Father for the last time. “We’re very much in uncharted territory at the minute; nothing like this has happened in living memory. We’re all coming to terms with the shock of the decision.”
He continued: “What you can sense here today is a gratitude, and almost celebration, of the life of service that our Holy Father has given us. We very much wish him well, and are consoled by the knowledge that he is continuing to pray with us, and will continue on the pilgrim journey.”