Starting his public farewell to his flock, a weary Pope Benedict XVI celebrated his final public Mass as pontiff, presiding over Ash Wednesday services hours after a bittersweet audience that produced the extraordinary scene of the pope explaining his decision to step down directly to the faithful.
The mood inside St. Peter's Basilica was somber during the Mass, as if the weight of Benedict's decision and the finality of his pontificate had finally registered with the thousands of faithful present. But the basilica erupted in a rousing, minutes-long standing ovation as Benedict exited for the last time as pope, bringing tears to the eyes of some of his closest collaborators.
"We wouldn't be sincere, Your Holiness, if we didn't tell you that there's a veil of sadness on our hearts this evening," Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Benedict's longtime deputy, told the pope at the end of the service, his voice breaking.
"Thank you for having given us the luminous example of the simple and humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord," Bertone said, quoting Benedict's own words when he first appeared on the loggia overlooking St. Peter's Square after he was elected pope.
"Viva il papa!" the crowd yelled as Benedict stepped off the altar.