VATICAN CITY — Saying he would soon be “hidden to the world,” Pope Benedict XVI took his leave of parish priests and clergy of the Diocese of Rome on Thursday in a moving encounter during which he gave a personal, and incisive, recollection of the Second Vatican Council, the gathering of bishops 50 years ago that set the Roman Catholic Church’s course for the future.
Benedict, who announced his resignation four days ago — the first pope to step down willingly in nearly 600 years — also indicated that he would not hold a public role once his resignation becomes official on Feb. 28.
“Though I am now retiring to a life of prayer, I will always be close to all of you and I am sure all of you will be close to me, even though I remain hidden to the world,” he told the assembly of hundreds of priests, who had greeted him with a long, standing ovation and some tears.
The pope will live in a former convent inside Vatican City.
At a news briefing Thursday, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said Benedict’s longtime secretary, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, who was also named prefect of the papal household two months ago, would continue to work for him.
Lombardi said he saw no conflict of interest if Gaenswein served the current pope and his successor.
The prefect is responsible for logistical duties, and “in this sense it is not a profound problem, I think,” Lombardi said.
The nuns who currently tend to the pope will also live with the pontiff once he is no longer pope.
Lombardi also confirmed news reports that the pope had had an accident during a trip to Mexico last March, hitting his head in the middle of the night, but he denied that the episode had influenced the pontiff’s decision to retire.
Since his announcement Monday, which stunned the Roman Catholic world, there has been much closer public scrutiny of the pope’s health.
The 85-year-old pope — who has appeared increasingly frail in recent public appearances — said he felt he did not have the strength to continue in his ministry.
On Tuesday, the Vatican confirmed for the first time that the pope had had a pacemaker since his time as a cardinal and had its batteries changed three months ago.
It didn’t have an “impact on the trip or on his decision,” Lombardi said, pointing out that the pope had kept his appointments as scheduled.
The priests from the Rome diocese who attended Benedict’s audience said they felt they had witnessed a powerful moment in church history, one that also humanized a pope who has often seemed remote.
“It moved me to see the pope smile,” said Don Mario Filippa, a priest in Rome. “He has found peace within himself.”
“It was a part of history,” said Father Martin Astudillo, 37, an Argentine priest who is studying in Rome. “This is a man of God who at the end of his public role, transmits his vision of the church and relationship with the church,” he added.