Pope says he is not abandoning the Church

Pope Benedict XVI leads his last Angelus prayer before stepping down in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican February 24, 2013. Photo: Reuters / L'Osservatore Romano

Pope Benedict XVI has told tens of thousands of people in St Peter's Square, that his decision to resign does not mean he is abandoning the Catholic Church.

"The Lord is calling me to climb onto the mountain, to dedicate myself even more to prayer and meditation. But this does not mean abandoning the Church, on the contrary," Benedict said in his Angelus prayers.

"If the Lord is asking me this it is so that I can continue serving it with the same dedication and love that I had until now, but in a way that is more commensurate to my age and my strength," said the pontiff on Sunday.

The crowd cheered, "Long live the Pope."

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Benedict, who turns 85 in April, cited his age and health as reasons for his decision to resign as Pope, the first pontiff to do so in 600 years.

Sunday was the Pope's final regular Sunday Angelus blessing and he has a Wednesday general audience in St Peter's Square on Feb. 27 before he ends his duties as pontiff the following day.

The Angelus begins with the words, "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."

After the pealing of bells, Benedict thanked crowd for their affection and said, "We thank God for the sun he has given us," after the weather defied meteorologists forecasting rain.

A conclave to choose Benedict's successor will begin preparations after the Pope steps down.

A day before the papal blessing, Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone deplored some media speculation that linked Pope Benedict XVI's resignation to a scandal said to involve gay priests and blackmail. Bertone does not normally comment to the media.

Bertone said, "It is deplorable that as we draw closer to the time of the beginning of the conclave ... that there be a widespread distribution of often unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories that cause serious damage to persons and institutions."

He did not deal with any specifics of the story which appeared in the La Repubblica on Thursday.

The Rome newspaper carried a report linking Benedict's resignation to group gay priests in the Vatican said to have been blackmailed by people outside the Holy See. The story claims the pope's decision to step down dates to Dec. 17, after he first saw dossier compiled by three cardinals.

Bertone said those behind the newpaper report may have been trying to influence those attending the conclave.

Separately, the guardian.co.uk reported that the Pope has been told about allegations that Britain's most senior Catholic had been accused of "inappropriate acts" against fellow priests, and was considering how to respond.

Hours after the allegations were published by the Observer newspaper, the Vatican confirmed that written allegations against Cardinal Keith O'Brien by three serving priests and one former priest were being studied by Pope Benedict.

The newspaper quoted a spokesman for the Vatican saying, "the Pope is informed about the problem and the issue is now in his hands".

Cardinal O'Brien, who is the UK's most senior Roman Catholic and head of the Scottish Catholic church, did not say at his cathedral on Sunday, citing legal advice. He contests the allegations, which date back 30 years to the 1980s, when O'Brien was a rector of a seminary in Aberdeen and then archbishop.

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