VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Sunday praised his predecessor, Benedict XVI, for courageously following his conscience when he decided to retire.
Benedict became the first pontiff in 600 years to quit the post when he resigned in February, paving the way for Francis' election as pope two weeks later.
By lauding Benedict's surprise choice to step down, Francis put his papacy on record as supporting the move and leaving himself and future popes a possible way to leave office as the head of the Roman Catholic church.
Francis told pilgrims, tourists and Romans in St. Peter's Square on Sunday that God made Benedict understand through prayer the step he had to take.
Benedict, then 85, explained when announcing his intention to resign that he felt he didn't have the mental and physical strength to continue as pontiff.
The rare resignation dismayed some traditionalists in the Catholic church. But Francis praised Benedict for following his conscience "with a great sense of acumen and courage."
"We must learn to listen more to our conscience," said Francis, speaking from a window of the Apostolic Palace to the crowd in the square below. "This doesn't mean following one's own self, doing what interests me, what's convenient for me, what I like," the pope said. Instead, "conscience is an interior space for listening to the truth, to good" and to God who "speaks to my heart and helps me to discern, to understand the path I must follow, and once the decision is taken, to go forward, to remain faithful," Francis added.
"We have had a recent marvelous example of this relationship with God in our conscience," Francis said, citing his predecessor's resignation.
"Pope Benedict XVI gave us this great example in this sense, when the Lord made him understand , in prayer, what step he had to take," Francis said, "He followed, with a great sense of acumen and courage, his conscience, that is, the will of God who was speaking to his heart."
Benedict is now living in a Vatican monastery. A theologian, Benedict has said he wants to dedicate the rest of his life to prayer and meditation.
Benedict was a longtime Vatican-based German cardinal and already elderly when elected in 2005 to succeed Pope John Paul II. Benedict had worked closely with John Paul, who began his long papacy in 1978 as a vigorous, athletic middle-aged man but who later was slowed by Parkinson's disease, which increasingly enfeebled him in his last years before death.