Pope's 'bittersweet' farewell leaves challenges behind

Posters of the pope
Image caption Pope Benedict's successor must tackle a range of issues from the role of women to relations with China

Pope Benedict XVI's swansong - his final public appearance at a general audience in St Peter's Square - was a bittersweet affair.

Tens of thousands of Romans and foreigners gave him a standing ovation.

Some waved national flags to advertise their presence, or carried aloft banners thanking the Pope - the first in modern times to have dared to resign his high office - for his service to the Church.

Squinting into the bright sunlight on a nippy winter morning, Pope Benedict, a shy and retiring person in private life, relaxed his guard, something he has rarely done in public during his eight-year pontificate.

He had steered St Peter's boat through choppy waters, he admitted, often sailing against the wind.

The papacy had been "a great weight" upon his shoulders, although he had never lost faith. But looking back on the day when he had been elected pope at the already advanced age of 78 back in April 2005, he said he realised at that moment that he had accepted a job for life.

Prayer and meditation

Popes have to give up all claims to privacy, he said. And now he had no intention of returning to private life, to a life of travel, receptions, meetings, and the lecture circuit.

Image caption Scandal and infighting has plagued the Vatican during Pope Benedict's reign

He would instead follow a life of prayer and meditation in the footsteps of Benedict, the medieval saint whose name he borrowed upon his election, when he returns to live inside the Vatican after the installation of his successor.

Although Pope Benedict had kind valedictory words for his top cardinals with whom he has been working inside the Vatican, professional Vatican watchers were aware that the "difficult moments" to which Benedict referred in his farewell speech were code for the scandal and infighting that have gone on inside the Vatican, often without his being properly informed.

The next pope will have to give priority to a reform of the Vatican bureaucracy, the central government of the Roman Catholic Church, which has often been overly hesitant to react to the various crises which have arisen during Benedict's papacy.

They include the worldwide clerical sexual abuse scandals, the continued dwindling of the Christian presence in the Middle East, difficult relations with the Muslim world and with Israel, and the failure of the Pope's attempts to lure back breakaway traditionalist Catholics into the papal fold.

He will also have to address some urgent financial issues, for the revenues of the Holy See, like those of governments in many parts of Europe, continue to decline while its expenses continue to rise.

The operations of the Vatican's own bank, the Institute for Works of Religion, accused by international financial regulators of failing to exercise due diligence to combat money laundering, will also need some new oversight by Benedict's successor.

Fundamental issues for the Catholic Church such as the future role of women, the use of condoms to combat Aids, particularly in Africa, and the questioning by Catholic priests in many countries of the continuing need for a mandatory celibacy rule are also going to be raised during the next papacy.

In St Peter's Square I noticed two huge flags of the People's Republic of China being waved by Catholics from Bejing.

Pressure to reform

Relations between the Vatican and Communist China are today at perhaps their lowest ebb since the Communists expelled all foreign missionaries in the early 1950s.

Image caption Chinese Catholics will be hoping for a bigger voice in Rome

But although the number of Catholics in Asia is tiny in comparison with those in other continents, Chinese Catholics, whether they belong to the so-called underground church or to the officially tolerated Chinese Patriotic Church, also want their voices to be heard in Rome.

Too many subjects have been declared taboo - that is, banned from further public discussion - under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

The new broom at the Vatican, from whichever continent or country he comes, is going to be under intense pressure from grassroots Catholics to take a fresh look at many of the nagging problems which have accumulated inside the Catholic Church since the beginning of the new millennium.

Many of these problems, such as demands for the ordination of women priests, have remained concealed, swept under the carpet, waiting for a new hand on the tiller.

The image of the boat of St Peter, the fisherman of Galilee, the first apostle and first pope, encountering stormy seas is a powerful one for Pope Benedict to evoke at his final public appearance as sovereign of the world's smallest sovereign state, and leader of one of the world's largest communities of believers.

He remains confident that the Boat of the Fisherman will continue to ride the waves and will not sink.