VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI's emotional farewell took an intimate turn Thursday as he held off-the-cuff reminiscences with Roman priests. In the background, questions kept mounting about the true state of Benedict's health and his influence over the next pontiff.
For a second day, Benedict sent very pointed messages to his successor and to the cardinals who will elect that man about the direction the Catholic Church must take once he is no longer pope. While these remarks have been clearly labeled as Benedict's swansong before retiring, his influence after retirement remains the subject of intense debate.
Benedict's resignation Feb. 28 creates an awkward situation — the first in 600 years — in which the Catholic Church will have both a reigning pope and a retired one. The Vatican has insisted that Benedict will cease to be pope at exactly 8 p.m. on the historic day, devoting himself entirely to a life of prayer.
But the Vatican confirmed Thursday that Benedict's trusted private secretary, the 56-year-old Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, would remain as his secretary and live with Benedict in his retirement home in the Vatican gardens — as well as remain prefect of the new pope's household.
That dual role would seem to bolster concerns expressed privately by some cardinals that Benedict — by living inside the Vatican and having his aide also working for his successor — would continue to exert at least some influence on the Vatican.
Asked about this apparent conflict of interest, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi said the prefect's job is very technical, organizing the pope's audiences.
"In this sense it is not a very profound problem," he said.
Also Thursday, Lombardi confirmed that Benedict had hit his head during his March 2012 trip to Mexico but denied that it played any "relevant" role in his decision to resign. The Vatican newspaper has said the pope decided to step down after the exhausting trip, which also took the pontiff to Cuba.
Italy's La Stampa newspaper reported Thursday that Benedict had hit his head on the sink when he got up in the middle of the night in an unfamiliar bedroom in Leon, Mexico. Blood stained his hair, pillow and carpet, the report said. No one outside the pope's inner circle knew, the report said, because the cut was neither deep nor serious and was covered by his skullcap.
Lombardi confirmed the injury but said "it was not relevant for the trip, in that it didn't affect it, nor in the decision" to resign.
Benedict also fell and broke his right wrist in 2009 during a late-night fall in an unfamiliar bedroom at his Alpine vacation home.
The pope's only public appearance Thursday was a meeting with several thousand priests living and studying in Rome. In it he offered a 45-minute lucid and often funny monologue about the Second Vatican Council.
Benedict was a young theological expert at Vatican II, the 1962-65 meetings that brought the Catholic Church into the modern world with important documents on the church's relations with other religions, its place in the world and its liturgy.
Benedict has spent much of his eight-year pontificate seeking to correct what he considers the misinterpretation of Vatican II, insisting that it wasn't a revolutionary break from the past as liberal Catholics paint it, but a renewal and a reawakening of the best traditions of the ancient church.
He drove that point home on Thursday, blaming botched media reporting of the council's deliberations for having reduced the work to "political power struggles between various currents in the church."
Because the media's interpretation was more accessible than that of the council participants, that version fueled popular understanding of what the council was all about, Benedict said.
That led in the following years to "so many calamities, so many problems, really so many miseries: Seminaries that closed, convents that closed, the liturgy that was banalized," he said.
In what will be one of his final public remarks as pope, Benedict said he hoped the "true council" will be understood.
"Our job in this 'Year of Faith' is to work so that the true council, with the strength of the Holy Spirit, is truly realized and that the church is truly renovated," he told the priests.
Just hours earlier, Benedict delivered another pointed message during an emotional Ash Wednesday Mass in St. Peter's Basilica, his last public liturgy before he resigns.
In his homily, Benedict lamented the internal church rivalries that he said had "defiled the face of the church" — a not-too-subtle message to his successor and the conclave that will elect him.
Those rivalries came to the fore last year with the leaks of internal papal documents by the pope's own butler. The documentation revealed bitter infighting within the highest ranks of the Catholic Church, along with allegations of corruption and mismanagement of the Holy See's affairs.
Benedict took the scandal as a personal betrayal and a wound on the entire church. In a sign of his desire to get to the bottom of the leaks, he appointed a commission of cardinals to investigate alongside Vatican investigators.
His butler, Paolo Gabriele, was convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison, although Benedict ultimately pardoned him.