Sunday, February 17, 2013

At B16's Window, A Big "Thank You"... While Behind the Walls, The "Showcase" Begins

Drawing a crowd at least four or five times its normal size, a throng estimated at well over 100,000 people swarmed St Peter's Square today for the Pope's noontime Angelus – the next-to-last Sunday greeting from B16 before his resignation takes effect in 11 days.

Unlike the Wednesday Audience, no tickets are required for the pontiff's weekly appearance at his study window. It was reported yesterday that the lone remaining mid-week gathering – on the 27th – has already seen 35,000 requests for tickets, and will be moved into the Square from its usual winter venue inside the 7,000-seat Paul VI Hall.

(On-demand video of the gathering is available through the Holy See's streaming HD player.)

Keeping his usual focus on the day's Gospel, the departing Pope spoke of this First Sunday of Lent's traditional account of Jesus' temptation by Satan in the desert. 

Quoting his favorite saint – Augustine, the subject of his doctoral dissertation in theology as a young priest, and a figure on whom he's sought to model himself – Benedict reminded the crowd that "Jesus took our temptations on himself to give us his victory over them."

In his usual greetings after the reflection and prayer, for the most part the Pope only alluded to his resignation, thanking those in attendance for their "closeness" and "goodness" in the wake of his Monday announcement in the usual six languages. 

"Thank you for having come in such numbers!" Benedict told the Italian contingent, who ostensibly formed the bulk of the crowd. 

"Your presence is a sign of the affection and spiritual closeness you've shown me over these days. I am deeply grateful to you!"

Only to the Spanish-speaking faithful, however, did Benedict explicitly ask prayers "for me and for the next Pope."

While the crowd was dotted with banners and signs being held aloft thanking the Pope and wishing him well, reports from the Piazza found that most attendees didn't appear to come as part of organized church groups, but simply showed up on their own.

Then again – even amid the extraordinary nature of this transition – that's standard procedure for the Romans, of whom it's long been said that they come in droves to cheer the city's new bishop on his election, and don't return until his pontificate's end.

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In accord with long-standing Vatican practice for this first week of the 40-day penitential period before Easter, this morning's appearance was Benedict's lone public event of the week, and will remain that even amid the transition. 

Come evening, the Pope and his senior aides in the Roman Curia begin their annual Lenten retreat, and the church's central offices will go into "blackout" until the exercises conclude on Saturday.

As has suddenly become well-noted in the wake of the resignation, this year's week of sermons will be led by the Vatican's Culture Czar, the tweeting Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, who had already ranked among the most-mentioned potential successors to Joseph Ratzinger.

While the Lenten retreat has long been seen in Roman circles as a "showcase" for potential future pontiffs – both Cardinals Karol Wojtyla (1976) and Joseph Ratzinger (2002) were respectively tapped to give the exercises before their own elections – from the time of his ascent, Benedict studiously avoided the practice for almost his entire tenure, tapping retired cardinals and priest-professors to conduct six of his eight retreats as Pope. 

With the choice of the 70 year-old Italian (who scored headlines recently by confessing a newfound devotion to the late British soul singer Amy Winehouse), only with an eye to his retirement did B16 pick an active cardinal of the Curia to carry out the task. 

Of course, the last time that happened was when Benedict himself was given the task by John Paul II, at the end of which week the Polish Pope conferred the pallium on his eventual successor.

Restricted by long-standing tradition to the heads of the world's archdioceses, a Vatican release at the time said the exceptional gift of the woolen band (a symbol of jurisdiction and the "easy yoke" of Christ) was conceded to Ratzinger given his status as Dean of the College of Cardinals.

What wasn't lost on those in the room, though, was the symbolism ahead – namely, the pallium's role as the lone garb then used to signify the installation of a new Pope.

His talks set to focus on the Psalms, in a first for a papal retreat, Ravasi's sermons will reportedly be released in some form shortly after each takes place. 

In a break from the usual timing – and, in retrospect, perhaps a sign of the gravity with which Benedict weighed the choice – Ravasi's selection as Lenten preacher was announced significantly later than the norm, only emerging just after New Year.