It was a solemn Pope Benedict XVI who celebrated his last Mass as Roman Catholic leader in St Peter’s Basilica, but spontaneous applause illustrated the emotion felt by the clergy and congregation.
Thanking everyone the pontiff quickly returned to the job in hand, Ash Wednesday prayers marking the Church’s season of Lent.
Benedict used his homily to again call for unity within the Vatican in barely disguised criticism of recent infighting among clerics.
The German pope urged the faithful to “show the face of the Church and how that face is sometimes disfigured”.
“I am thinking particularly about sins against the unity of the Church, about divisions in the body of the Church,” he said.
“Overcoming individualism and rivalry is a humble sign,” he added during his final public Mass.
Italian newspapers, whose Vatican watchers are weighing every word uttered by Benedict these days, seized on the terms
“disfigured face” and “rivalry” as what the Milan daily Corriere della Sera called “signals hurled at the conclave”.
The next few weeks will see major changes at the Vatican as former Vatican Press Office Director Joaquín Navarro-Valls explained: “For me Benedict XVI, has acted in a surprisingly courageous way. His decision was his own.
Navarro-Valls continued: “But what happens now? The situation is the same as with the death of a Pope. It forces what is technically called the period of the “Sede Vacante” when all those within the Curia, or Vatican administration, have to step down.”
During this period, the Holy See is administered by a regency of the College of Cardinals. After Benedict leaves at the end of this month Church leaders will begin the complicated process of choosing the next Pope.
It is believed the behind-the-scenes battle for the succession has already begun.