© Tony Gentile/Reuters
Priests listened to Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on Thursday. “I will always be close to all of you,” Benedict told them.
Saying he would soon be "hidden to the world," Pope Benedict XVI took his leave of parish priests and clergy members of the Diocese of Rome on Thursday as he offered personal, and incisive, recollections 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 on Monday in a move that stunned the Roman Catholic world, also indicated that he would not hold a public role once his resignation became official on Feb. 28. Benedict is the first pope to step down in nearly 600 years.

"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," Benedict, 85, and increasingly frail, told the assembly of hundreds of priests, who had greeted him with a long standing ovation and some tears.

Priests in attendance said they felt they had witnessed a powerful moment in church history, one that also humanized a pope who had 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."

Father Martin Astudillo, 37, an Argentine priest who is studying in Rome, said, "It was a part of history." He added: "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. We saw in a few words a real synthesis of his vision of the church and what he expects from whomever takes over."

During the reflection - or "chat" in his words - on the Second Vatican Council, Benedict recalled the "incredible" expectations of the bishops going into the gathering.

"We were full of hope, enthusiasm and also of good will," he said.

But while the council made landmark decisions that would propel the church into the future, much got lost in the news media's interpretation of what transpired, Benedict said, which led to the "calamities" that have marred recent church history.

The news outlets reduced the proceedings "into a political power struggle between different currents of the church," Benedict said, and each chose a side that suited its individual vision of the world.

These messages, not that of the council, entered into the public sphere, and that led in the years ahead to "so many calamities, so many problems, seminaries closed, convents that closed, the liturgy trivialized," the pope said.

Benedict spoke of how the Second Vatican Council had explored ideas of "continuity" between the Old and New Testaments, and of the relationship between the Catholic and Jewish faiths, a thorny issue during his tenure.

"Even if it's clear that the church isn't responsible for the Shoah, it's for the most part Christians who did this crime," the German-born Benedict said of the Holocaust, adding that this called for a need to "deepen and renovate the Christian conscience," even if it is true that "real believers only fought against" Nazi barbarism.

At a news briefing on Thursday, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, confirmed a report in the Turin newspaper La Stampa that the pope had accidentally hit his head during a trip to Mexico last March. The press corps traveling with Benedict was not informed of the accident.

The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano has reported that the pope had decided to retire after returning from that trip. But Father Lombardi rejected La Stampa's suggestion that the episode might have prompted the decision.

La Stampa reported that Benedict had gotten up in the middle of the night but could not find the light switch in the unfamiliar environment, and had accidentally hit his head on a sink in the bathroom.

An unidentified prelate on the same trip said the pope had come down to breakfast the next morning with blood in his hair, the newspaper said. There was also blood on the pillow, "and a few drops on the carpet," La Stampa quoted the prelate as saying. "But it was not a deep cut, nor was it worrisome," and it was covered by the pope's thick hair, the prelate added. The pope did not complain during the day's events.

Later that night, the prelate said, he heard that the pope's doctor had reacted by expressing worries about so much travel, and that Benedict had responded that he too had concerns about traveling.

Father Lombardi said: "I don't deny that this episode happened, but it didn't impact on the rest of his trip, nor on his decision to resign. That isn't linked to one single episode."

Since Benedict announced the decision, saying he felt he did not have the strength to continue in his ministry, there has been much closer public scrutiny of his health.

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.

Once retired, Benedict will live in a convent in Vatican City, and will be tended to by the nuns who look after him now. Father Lombardi said Benedict's longtime personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, who was also named prefect of the papal household two months ago, would continue to work for him.

Father Lombardi said he saw no conflict of interest if Archbishop Gänswein 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," Father Lombardi said.

Rachel Donadio contributed reporting.