VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Pope Benedict XVI began a week-long spiritual retreat out of the public eye on Monday ahead of his resignation, with the cardinal leading the prayers saying he hoped they would be an "oasis".
The pope will remain in the Vatican with some of his closest aides for the traditional pre-Easter retreat and will only take a short break each day to meet with his secretary Georg Gaenswein to deal with urgent Church matters.
He will be praying together with the Roman Curia - effectively the government of the Catholic Church - in a private chapel in his residence.
The Vatican's culture minister, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi - seen as a possible long-shot candidate for the papacy - has been selected to lead the retreat this year and has written 17 spiritual "meditations" for the week.
"After the storm, my task will be to create a moment of oasis," Cardinal Ravasi said in an interview with Vatican radio before the beginning of the retreat.
"The pope wanted it himself and he did not cancel. This moment of silence, this white space, really has the sense of passing to the new horizon towards which the pope is moving and in which we too will have to live," he added.
After the retreat, the outgoing pope will receive Italian President Giorgio Napolitano on February 23, celebrate his final Sunday prayer on February 24, and hold a last audience before tens of thousands of faithful on February 27.
Pope Benedict will formally step down on Feb 28.
Vatican radio has said it will be making available one of Cardinal Ravasi's prayers per day as a podcast so that Catholic faithful can pray along with the pope.
In the first prayer late on Sunday, extracts of which were broadcast by the Vatican, Cardinal Ravasi compared the Pope to the Biblical figure of Moses who prayed for the Israelites on a mountain while battles raged in the valley below.
"This image represents the main function, your function, for the Church, that is of intercession," he said.
"We will remain in the valley... where there is dust, where there is fear, terror, nightmares but also hope, where you have been for these past eight years with us," he said.
"From now on, however, we will know that on the mountain there is your intercession for us," he added.
Cardinal Ravasi said the spiritual retreat would "liberate the soul from the dust of things, from the mud of sin, from the sand of banality, from the nettles of chatter which, especially in these days, are constantly in our ears."