Pope Benedict hints he will retire into seclusion

Footage from the Pope's speech shows some were moved to tears

The outgoing head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI, has hinted he will withdraw into seclusion after stepping down at the end of this month.

"Even if I am withdrawing into prayer, I will always be close to all of you... even if I remain hidden to the world," he told a meeting of Roman priests.

The pontiff, 85, shocked the world's biggest Christian Church on Monday when he announced his resignation.

He cited his advanced age as the reason for resigning.

According to the Vatican's semi-official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, the Pope took the decision to resign after his trip to Mexico and Cuba in 2012.

The Vatican confirmed on Thursday that Pope Benedict had hit his head during the March trip to Mexico, but denied the accident had any role in his decision.

According to a report in Italy's La Stampa newspaper, the Pope was lightly injured after getting up in the middle of the night in an unfamiliar bedroom during the trip, with blood staining his hair and sheets.

Earlier this week, the Vatican said for the first time that Pope Benedict had a pacemaker, and that he had undergone surgery to replace the batteries three months ago.

The Pope appears to be planning a complete retreat from the public eye, the BBC's Alan Johnston reports from the Vatican.

However, he is expected to spend his retirement in a monastery at the Vatican and his relationship with his successor as pope is bound to be an endless source of speculation, our correspondent adds.

A new pope is expected to be elected by cardinals before Easter, which falls on 31 March this year.

'Certainly a surprise'

Pope Benedict made his remarks at the Vatican in what amounted to a farewell address to hundreds of priests who serve in the Diocese of Rome, our correspondent says.

He appealed to the spirit of the reformist Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.

What happens next

  • 17-23 February - Lenten retreat, most normal Vatican functions suspended
  • 24 February - Pope recites Angelus for the last time
  • 27 February - Last weekly audience, in St Peter's Square
  • Evening of 28 February - Pope leaves office
  • From 15 March - Conclave to elect new Pope

"We must work for the realisation of the real council and for a real renewal of the Church," he said.

Speaking earlier, some of the unnamed priests gave their reaction to the pontiff's decision to resign.

"People are divided, some say that he was right in doing so, since he did not feel able to continue any longer, others on the contrary feel dejected," said one.

"As for me, I am grieved and I hope and I pray for Benedict XVI, hoping that the Church again finds strength."

"It was certainly a surprise for everybody," said another.

"Maybe in this moment we cannot easily understand it since all of us are feeling shocked but it is a sign that our pontiff wanted to act for the good of the Church.

"He steps aside not because he abandons Peter's boat, but because he wants this boat to be led with the help of the Holy Spirit through a person who is strong."

Next week the Pope will carry out no public engagements after which he will hold one more public audience on 27 February, in St Peter's Square.

On 28 February he will fly off to the papal retreat at Castel Gandolfo, where he will stay while Church leaders go through the complicated ritual of choosing a successor.

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