I was one of the estimated 200,000 faithful who arose at the crack of dawn to join the crowds swelling St. Peter’s Square and its surrounding streets. I was also joined by millions more by way of television, radio, and the internet. We had come on this historic day to express deep personal affection and solidarity for Benedict XVI, whose February 27 audience served as his last public appearance and farewell address in Rome.

DSCN0117Benedict reassured us that he will resign his papacy tomorrow “in full consciousness of its gravity and also novelty, but with profound serenity of soul.” He therefore confirmed his full personal freedom to do so, as originally announced on February 11 and in accordance with the Church’s legal canons which protect against forced resignations.

All said, there was not an air of gloom-and-doom in St. Peter’s Square. The unexpected spring-like sunny weather broke weeks of an endless stormy winter (literally and figuratively) in Rome. This glorious day, surely, was seen a positive sign for the Church’s future. The theological virtue of hope was indeed palpable among the vivacious crowd who expressed their gratitude with brightly colored banners of affection (“You will not be alone!”, “We love and thank you Holy Father!”, “We are young and will not fear!”) and culminated in festive joy as a Bavarian folk band broke into song. There was a cheering confidence, as if the Pontiff were on a final “victory lap” in his popemobile. The normally non-emotive German pope went off script during the rhythmic, joyful chant of Italian “Be-ne-det-to!”: “I am truly moved! And I see the Church is alive!”

Alas, we are aware that there has been no shortage of negative distraction from Benedict’s warmly received farewell audience in St. Peter’s Square. There has been a huge amount of negative press surrounding Vatileaks, the Vatican bank’s fiscal fiascos, the growing “inappropriate behavior” among clergy in Europe (which forced Cardinal O’Brien of Edinburgh to tender his resignation just yesterday) and the many internal and external tempests that have darkened the skies above the Catholic Church’s leadership. And, of course, there is widespread criticism about whether a pontiff should, in good faith, resign his ministry at all.

Amid these accusations and gossip about the Church, it is easy to forget the enormous good it has brought to civil society, especially through its entrepreneurial efforts to expand private health care, pension programs, life insurance, education, credit institutions, and a whole host of initiatives that greatly limit the need for citizens to count on government for public programs which, in the end, stifle habits of charity and spontaneous generosity in our culture. (It is estimated the Catholic Church saves taxpayers billions of dollars in the U.S. alone. Just multiply this by 100 for what the Church does in the rest of the world!)

Never mind that Benedict, throughout his ecclesial and academic careers, has been a steadfast supporter of  the Church’s clear convictions on human dignity, liberty, stewardship, subsidiarity, and natural rights—all of which are fundamental to achieve a free and caring economic, political, and social order. They serve as the intellectual-spiritual foundation for all the Church’s aforesaid private endeavors.

Indeed the sexual abuse scandals, financial mismanagement, and conspiracy theories have made a difficult ship for Benedict to captain, while not even considering the Holy Father’s rigorous daily routine, extensive publications and intercontinental travel which alone are enough to make any 85-year old weary. No doubt they have had wear and tear on this humble worker in the Lord’s vineyard who accepted to serve his Church in April of 2005. In Benedict’s own words at today’s audience, the Church’s course has not always been smooth sailing under his leadership, but he has never felt despair:

And eight years later I can say that the Lord has guided me. He has been close to me. I have felt His presence every day. It has been a stretch of the Church’s path that has had moments of joy and light, but also difficult moments. I felt like St. Peter and the Apostles in the boat on the Sea of Galilee. The Lord has given us many days of sunshine and light breezes, days when the fishing was plentiful, but also times when the water was rough and the winds against us, just as throughout the whole history of the Church, when the Lord seemed to be sleeping. But I always knew that the Lord is in that boat and I always knew that the boat of the Church is not mine, not ours, but is His. And the Lord will not let it sink . . .

Above all, Benedict knows that we must recognize that the Church is an institution composed of and managed by human beings—perfected by virtue and led astray by vice. The Church, therefore, has and will always have plenty of goodness to offer and, unfortunately, failings to report. But ultimately guided and founded by the Lord’s Infinite Intelligence and Supreme Goodness, our faith informs us that the Church will prevail:

We are in the Year of Faith, which I desired precisely in order to strengthen our faith in God in a context that seems to relegate it more and more to the background. I would like to invite everyone to renew their firm trust in the Lord, to entrust ourselves like children to God’s arms, certain that those arms always hold us up and are what allow us to walk forward each day, even when it is a struggle.

Note: You can go here for Benedict’s full farewell address in English. See also the EWTN video below.