Skip to main content

Pope Benedict leads final public prayer, local media buzzes with scandal

By Ben Brumfield and Ben Wedeman, CNN
updated 8:34 AM EST, Thu February 28, 2013
  • The pope says his decision was the result of a calling from God
  • The Italian media has been abuzz with new clergy sex allegations
  • The Vatican vehemently denied the allegations
  • Benedict has said he is stepping down because of weakness caused by aging

Vatican City (CNN) -- Pope Benedict XVI delivered his final public prayer ceremony Sunday to a crowd of thousands at St. Peter's Square in Vatican City, amid rumors of a sex scandal brewing as he prepares to step down.

"Thank you for your affection," the pope told the crowd as he appeared at the window of his apartment overlooking the square.

As is customary, he opened the weekly Angelus prayer with a short sermon.

Benedict spoke on the Transfiguration of Christ, one of the key moments in Jesus' life on Earth, when, according to the church, he took three disciples to pray on a mountain. During his prayers, Jesus was miraculously changed and filled with light.

Read the full text of Benedict's sermon

Vatican denies 'false news reports'
Dr. talks friendship with papal candidate
Key moments in pope's resignation
CNN Explains: Papal succession
Rumors swirl around pope's resignation

The crowd interrupted Benedict with rousing applause, as he told them that God wanted him to do the same.

"The Lord is calling me to go on top of the hill, to dedicate myself once more to prayer and meditation," he said. "But this does not mean to abandon the church."

Resignation and rumors

This month, Benedict shocked the world with the announcement that he would step down. Thursday is his last day as acting pope.

The Italian media has been abuzz in recent days with allegations that gay clergy may have made themselves vulnerable to blackmail by male prostitutes, setting off speculation that a brewing scandal may have triggered Benedict's resignation.

The Vatican vehemently denied the allegations Saturday.

Interactive: Where does the pope live?

Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone said it was "deplorable" that as the time for the Roman Catholic cardinals to elect a new pope approaches, a rash of "often unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories" has appeared.

As the first pontiff to step down in six centuries, Benedict said he is resigning "because of advanced age." He is 85.

"Strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me," Benedict said when he announced his retirement this month.

Shortly after the pope's announcement nearly two weeks ago, a different rumor began making its way through the Italian media: Allegations that the pontiff's decision was linked to a medical procedure to replace the battery in his pacemaker. A Vatican spokesman dismissed the idea at the time.

CNN Senior Vatican Analyst John Allen has said that clergy members trying to cover up their sex lives may well be creating problems in the Catholic Church, as they have in the past. But he believes that the current unsourced speculation in the Italian media should be taken with a grain of salt.

Several years ago, Benedict suggested he would be open to resigning should his health fail, Allen has said.

Catholic population in numbers
Catholic population in numbers
Catholic population in percentages
Catholic population in percentages
What some Catholics want in next pope

Wrapping up a papacy

After the sermon, he chanted the Angelus, a common Catholic prayer, with the crowd.

It begins with: "The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary. And she conceived by the power of Holy Spirit. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus."

The throng of spectators extended beyond the borders of the piazza, some waving flags from nations around the world and holding up signs with words of thanks for the departing head of the Catholic Church.

He ended his message with: "Let's always be close in prayer."

Sunday's Angelus will not be Benedict's final public appearance, as he is scheduled to hold a general audience Wednesday, according to the Vatican.

He will hold a "meet and greet" with cardinals late Thursday morning before stepping down the same evening, the Vatican website said.

Benedict was dean of the College of Cardinals in 2005 when he became the sixth German to be picked as pope, albeit the first since the 11th century.

At the time, the church was facing several pressing issues, including a growing crisis over the church's role in handling molestation accusations against priests around the world.

The pontiff will leave office at 8 p.m. on February 28, two-and-a-half weeks after he shocked the Roman Catholic world by announcing his resignation.

The Vatican has said a new pope will be in place for the church's Easter celebrations on March 31.

Benedict will begin his retirement in the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo before he withdraws to a monastery being built for him in Vatican City, a Vatican spokesman has said.

He will then lead a cloistered life, the spokesman said.

CNN's Ben Wedeman reported from Vatican City, and Ben Brumfield reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN's Hada Messia contributed to this report.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:39 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
According to widely cited Italian media reports, Pope Francis recently told a young boy grieving the loss of a pet dog that "paradise is open to all God's creatures."
updated 11:59 AM EST, Tue December 2, 2014
Pope Francis said that modern slavery is a "crime against humanity" and is "unfortunately becoming worse and worse every day."
updated 5:31 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
Pope Francis is to make his first trip to the United States as the head of the Catholic Church next September.
A Vatican report says the church should welcome and appreciate gays, and offers a solution for divorced and remarried Catholics who want to receive Communion.
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
Using his strongest language to date, Pope Francis told Italian Mafia members that they are excommunicated from the Catholic Church.
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
"Drug addiction is an evil, and with evil there can be no yielding or compromise," Pope Francis said.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Fri June 20, 2014
No topic has been off limits for Pope Francis so far.
updated 5:33 PM EDT, Sat June 14, 2014
Pope Francis prefers not to use a bulletproof Popemobile because it is a glass "sardine can" that walls him off from people.
updated 12:58 AM EDT, Mon June 9, 2014
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres committed themselves to the quest for peace with Pope Francis.
updated 2:46 PM EDT, Fri May 23, 2014
As the Holy Land prepares for a papal visit, Ivan Watson speaks to the man preparing to honor the pontiff with his food.
updated 12:31 PM EDT, Thu March 13, 2014
Not a jot of doctrine has changed in the year since Francis became Pope. But there's more than one way to measure his impact.
updated 10:01 AM EST, Sat February 22, 2014
Pope Francis created 19 new cardinals in a ceremony in the Vatican's St. Peter's Basilica -- the first such appointments since he was elected pontiff.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Thu March 13, 2014
"The spring evening in which Pope Francis was elected is an apt symbol of the beginning of his papacy and the years that will follow," writes a priest.
updated 11:05 AM EST, Fri February 14, 2014
In a gesture towards Valentine's Day, Pope Francis gave his advice on how to have a happy marriage before thousands of couples.
updated 4:10 PM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
Take a look at Pope Francis' first year in photos with our gallery.
updated 6:43 PM EST, Thu November 7, 2013
It was the embrace that melted hearts worldwide.
updated 5:59 AM EDT, Wed April 3, 2013
On Easter Sunday, Pope Francis kisses and hugs disabled boy lifted up in the crowd.
updated 12:09 PM EDT, Thu April 11, 2013
With the new pope himself a trained scientist, could the timing could be right for a new era of cooperation between the Vatican and science?
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sat March 16, 2013
Pope Francis is being painted as a humble and simple man, but his past is tinged with controversy.