VATICAN CITY — Standing above the ancient tomb of Saint Peter, Pope Benedict XVI used his final homily as pontiff Wednesday to deliver a blunt reflection on religious hypocrisy, suggesting the church he has headed was confronting internal "divisions" and sometimes presented a "disfigured" face.
Looking frail and aided by young priests as he moved beneath the vaulted canopy of the papal altar in St. Peter's Basilica, the pope appeared to implicitly address the Vatican power struggles and scandals that plagued his nearly eight-year tenure and, some have argued, potentially hastened his departure as leader of the Catholic Church. Presiding over his last public Mass — on Ash Wednesday, the opening of Lent, a period viewed by Catholics as a time of reflection and penance — he asked his flock to dwell on the true nature of a Christian life.
"We can reveal the face of the church and how this face is, at times, disfigured," the German-born pontiff said, speaking in Italian on an exceedingly rare occasion: a Mass recognized to be the last of a sitting pope. "I am thinking in particular of the sins against the unity of the church, of the divisions in the body of the church."
Benedict, 85, called for his ministry to overcome "individualism" and "rivalry," saying they were only for those "who have distanced themselves from the faith."
His candid farewell before a standing-room-only crowd of dignitaries, clergy and spectators, from the devout to the curious, came two days after Benedict shocked Vatican City and more than 1 billion Catholics worldwide by becoming the first pope in almost 600 years to resign. Although he officially steps down Feb. 28, and will make a final public appearance at St. Peter's Square on Feb. 27, Wednesday's Mass was to be the last for a man viewed as the church's most formidable conservative theologian in generations.
The Vatican, however, is still confronting the latest in a litany of scandals, including leaks by the pope's former butler of documents suggesting deep internal divisions and corruption within the ancient and secretive institution.
The pope has cited his failing body and mind to explain his decision, and on Wednesday he appeared fragile, if determined, while presiding over the solemn pageantry of the Catholic Mass.
He was shepherded down the long aisles of the basilica on a wheeled platform, although he at times walked unaided. In the pews, young seminarians took notes and grew teary-eyed as the pope hobbled down the marble stairs of the altar for the last time. Asian, European and American tour groups fortunate enough to be in Rome for the occasion strained their necks to catch a glimpse from the rear of the church.
At the conclusion of the Mass, as cardinals and bishops watched, a short nun stood on her chair to wave at the pope as he began his last procession out of the basilica. He walked with the aid of a gilded cane in the shape of a cross, and cheers erupted from the benches as he passed, along with shouts in Italian of "Long live the pope!"
"This is historic," said Andrew Bernetsky, a 22-year-old American seminary student from Connecticut who appeared visibly moved by the occasion. "The Holy Father has done what he's been doing since the day he was elected and has chosen to ask us to reflect on the meaning of unity before Christ. He is humbly pulling us together as a church as his gesture before leaving."
Benedict's remarks - including those offered during a regularly scheduled papal audience for thousands earlier in the day - had the feeling of a farewell as the pope enters his final days of official life. After bidding cardinals goodbye in a relatively informal ceremony on Feb. 28, he will be spirited by helicopter to the summer retreat of popes, Castel Gandolfo, just outside Rome, well before the official conclave of cardinals begins to select the next pope. That historic gathering under Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel will start on or around March 15, said Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican's spokesman.
The pope's sudden retirement, however, has left the Vatican facing a bevy of nearly unprecedented technicalities, with the Holy See selecting a high-ranking bureaucrat, Monsignor Giuseppe Sciacca, to aid in overseeing the legal transition. Yet to be established, Lombardi said, is what Benedict XVI's title will be following his retirement, or even what color he will exchange his papal white robes for. Following retirement, he said, Benedict - born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger -- will no longer enjoy papal infallibility, or the ability to speak undisputed truth on religious matters. After the new pope is chosen, Benedict XVI is schedule to retire to a cloistered nunnery on Vatican City grounds.
The retirement creates the bizarre happenstance of having two popes - one former, one current - within the walls of Vatican City. Though Benedict XVI is expected to keep a low profile in retirement, Lombardi suggested he would remain a vital figure in city-state. "I think the successor and also the cardinals will be very happy to have very nearby a person that best of all can understand what the spiritual needs of the church are," Lombardi said.
Though Wednesday's Mass -- including the traditional blessing of the ashes, which are placed on the foreheads of worshippers to mark the beginning of Lent - was solemn, the pope's earlier appearance in the day had a decidedly more personal tone. At the Wednesday general audience in the Vatican's vast Paul VI hall, an emotive pope was serenaded in his native German by Italian school children and repeatedly interrupted by thunderous applause.
He stepped down, the pope told the crowd, "for the good of the church."
"I have felt, almost physically, your prayers in these days which are not easy for me," he told the crowd. "The strength that the love of the Church and your prayers brings to me. Continue to pray for me and for the future pope. The Lord will guide us."
Stefano Pitrelli in Rome and Eliza Mackintosh in London contributed to this report.