As the papal exit strategy develops, Benedict XVI made his first public appearance since announcing his resignation, reiterating his strong abdication statement that he simply doesn't have the energy to do the job anymore. The Pope received a standing ovation when he entered the 8,000-seat Paul VI audience hall on Ash Wednesday, and he addressed his decision bluntly: "As you know, I have decided to renounce the ministry that the Lord gave to me on April 19, 2005. I did this in full liberty for the good of the church." He later added, "I am no longer capable of carrying out Peter’s Ministry with the strength needed.”
Later on Wednesday, Benedict was to oversee a special Ash Wednesday mass at St. Peter's Basilica that will probably be the last full-scale mass he takes part in as the Pope. His final public audience will be on February 27, his next to last day on the job. The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, reported that the Pope made his decision to quit several months ago, after a grueling trip to Mexico, but that the number of people who knew about it before this week "could be counted on one hand."
The Vatican has also released a few details on the transition, including how his last day as Pope on February 28 will play out. There will be brief farewell ceremony with his closest cardinals and staff, before heading to the Papal retreat before 8:00 p.m., which will become his temporary home away from the Vatican. Later, he will move back to the Vatican and into a small monastery currently being renovated to become his final home. (His two cats will be coming with him.)
The post will then remain vacant for at least two weeks, as the conclave to choose his successor s now scheduled to begin on or shortly after March 15. The Vatican has said they hoped to have the new Pope in place by Easter (which is March 31), but these things can drag on for some time. Benedict could not take part in the conclave even if he wanted to, because only Cardinals under the age of 80 are allowed a vote.
One detail that hasn't been worked out yet, is whether Benedict will still be Benedict. There hasn't been a living ex-Pope in almost 600 years, so no one is sure if he'll still be able to dress in his formal church robes, what his new title will be, or if he'll have to go back to using his birth name, Joseph Ratzinger.