Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI yesterday made a rare public appearance, delighting senior clerics with an impromptu speech at a celebration to mark the 65th anniversary of his ordination.
Three years after he became the first Pope to retire in seven centuries, the 89-year-old German confounded rumours that his health was failing by standing for nearly 10 minutes as he spoke in a clearly audible, steady voice in a mixture of Italian and Latin.
“Thank you Holiness, I feel protected by you,” the erstwhile Joseph Ratzinger said. “Let us hope that you can go forward in your goodness.”
Benedict was replying to a homage from Pope Francis, who said his predecessor’s prayers “do so much good and give so much strength, to me and to the entire Church.”
Departing from his prepared speech, Francis also hailed Benedict’s “healthy and wise sense of humour” — a quality that the austere-seeming academic rarely managed to project during his time in office.
Benedict, who has the official title of Emeritus Pope, was last seen in public on December 8 last year, when he appeared frail as he joined Francis to launch a Catholic Jubilee year on the theme of mercy.
Guests at yesterday’s ceremony included all the heads of the various departments of the Vatican bureaucracy, the curia, and Georg Ratzinger, who was ordained as a priest on the same day as his younger brother in 1951.
Ever since Benedict stepped down there have been suggestions that he is a focus for Church conservatives opposed to Francis’s reform agenda and that he continues to wield significant influence.
The current Pope addressed those ideas on Sunday during his flight home from Armenia.
“When he retired, he said ‘I promise obedience’ and he has given it,” Francis told reporters.
“Some have gone to him to complain about ‘this new Pope’ and he chased them away. With his Bavarian good manners of course, but he chased them out. He is a man of his word, straight, straight.”
Benedict has made only a handful of public appearances since he retired on February 28, 2013 saying he no longer had the strength of mind or body to carry on at the helm of a church beset by problems ranging from paedophile priests to financial scandals surrounding the Vatican bank.
A few months later he took up residence in a former convent inside the Vatican, where he has since spent most of his time praying, reading or writing.
Friends say he is slightly unsteady on his legs but that his mind remains agile — he can still play pieces by his beloved Mozart on the piano from memory, according to his personal secretary.
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