VATICAN CITY -- In his last Sunday address in St. Peter’s Square before leaving his post, Pope Benedict XVI said he was following God’s wishes by stepping down and would not abandon the Roman Catholic Church.
Addressing a crowd of about 100,000 flag-waving well-wishers, Benedict said, "The Lord is calling me to climb onto the mountain, to dedicate myself even more to prayer and meditation."
The 85-year-old pontiff then added: "This does not mean abandoning the church. Actually, if God asks this of me, it is precisely because I can continue to serve her with the same dedication and the same love I have shown so far.”
His service, he added, would be "in a way more in keeping with my age and my forces."
At 8 p.m. on Thursday, Benedict will become the first pope to step down in 600 years, triggering a conclave of cardinals who must elect his successor.
On Monday he is expected to issue legislation allowing cardinals to bring forward the start of the conclave from the current earliest date of March 15.
On Wednesday he holds his last general audience before meeting cardinals Thursday and flying by helicopter to Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence south of Rome.
On Saturday the Vatican’s secretariate of state issued a strongly worded statement condemning Italian news reports last week of intrigue, rivalries and homosexual activity within the Vatican, all of which were purported to have pushed the pope to resign.
"It is deplorable that as we draw closer to the time of the beginning of the conclave ... that there be a widespread distribution of often unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories that cause serious damage to persons and institutions,” the statement said.
Italian media have reported details allegedly contained in a report submitted to Benedict in December by three cardinals about possible whistle-blowers within the Vatican. The pope commissioned the report after his butler leaked a series of letters lifting the lid on alleged corruption and infighting at the Vatican.
Italian daily La Repubblica suggested the cardinals discovered that Vatican officials were being blackmailed, possibly over their homosexuality.
Benedict is expected to hold a private meeting with the cardinals on Monday.
Separately, British Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who is due to enter the conclave, rejected claims made in a British newspaper on Sunday that he had behaved in an “inappropriate” manner with other priests.
Speaking on Vatican radio on Saturday, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi criticized “those who spread confusion and discredit the church and its government.” In a reference to the media, he added, “Whoever thinks about money, sex and power, and is accustomed to view reality in these terms, is unable to see anything else but that, even in the church.”
But the pope himself has appeared to rebuke the church recently, calling on it in last week's Sunday blessing to “ignore pride and egoism.”
Dino Boffo, a former editor of the daily newspaper of the Italian bishops, who stepped down in 2009 when false reports circulated about his sexuality, last week said, “The Vatican needs to free itself from the evil habit of anonymous letters, denunciations without signatures, without proof.”
Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, leading a week of Lent prayers at the Vatican, on Friday attacked the “divisions, dissent, careerism, jealousies” within the church hierarchy.
As the week wrapped up Saturday, Benedict called Ravasi’s daily meditations “brilliant”, suggesting to some Vatican observers that Benedict might prefer Ravasi to be his successor.
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