VATICAN CITY -- Pope Benedict XVI was given a rapturous reception by the public at a general audience Wednesday, and the Vatican said he may offer his successor advice on papal duties after he resigns at the end of the month.
Benedict, 85, announced Monday that he would step down due to failing health, breaking with a 600-year tradition of popes serving until they die.
The German pontiff has decided to move to a former monastery on the grounds of the Vatican to pursue of secluded life of prayer after he resigns, but Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said Benedict could yet offer guidance to his successor.
"They are free men," he told The Times. "If the successor asks, why should he not respond?"
Concerns have been raised that even in retirement, Benedict will overshadow his successor, who will live in the Vatican's papal apartment a few hundred yards away.
Speaking to reporters, Lombardi said Benedict had not consulted cardinals before picking his retirement home, but he called it a "very wise" solution.
“The successor and cardinals will be very happy to have nearby a person who more than anyone understands the spiritual needs of the Church and his successor," he said. "He will be discreet and sustain his successor with spiritual service."
Benedict has a busy schedule of events planned before his resignation on Feb. 28, when he will be flown by helicopter from the Vatican to the papal summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo south of Rome. There he will likely sit out the March conclave to elect his successor before he returns to the Vatican.
At his general audience Wednesday, the first time he has met the public since announcing his retirement, a standing-room crowd of 8,000 at the Paul VI Hall in the Vatican cheered him on and waved national flags as he entered.
Benedict said he had decided to step down "in full freedom for the good of the church, after much prayer and having examined my conscience before God, knowing full well the seriousness of this act, but also realizing that I am no longer able to carry out the Petrine ministry with the strength which it demands."
Smiling and waving at the crowd, Benedict said his resignation would not hurt the church. "I am strengthened and reassured by the certainty that the church is Christ's, who will never leave her without his guidance and care," he said.
Benedict thanked a group of Italian schoolchildren for singing one of his favorite hymns in German.Thanking the crowd, he said, "Continue to pray for me, for the Church and for the future Pope. The Lord will guide us."
Benedict has arranged meetings with Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and President Giorgio Napolitano this weekend; on his last day at the Vatican as pope, he will meet with cardinals for a send-off.
The following day, cardinals will begin to hold informal meetings in Rome ahead of the conclave, which must be held between 15 and 20 days after Benedict departs. One hundred seventeen cardinals under the age of 80 will elect the next pope.
Lombardi said Vatican experts are still scrambling to work out the protocol covering a resigning pope, the first in 600 years. Asked if there was any progress made on what to call Benedict after he resigns, Lombardi said, "We don't have an answer," adding that Vatican officials and the pope himself were working on a solution.
Kington is a special correspondent