February 28. 2013 8:55PM

NH's faithful gather to say goodbye to Pope

New Hampshire Union Leader

Parishoners kneel and pray as Bishop Peter Libasci gives a special Mass for Pope Benedict XVI at St. Joseph Cathedral in Manchester on Thursday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

Bishop Peter Libasci gives a special Mass for Pope Benedict XVI at St. Joseph Cathedral in Manchester on Thursday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

Pope Benedict XVI blesses the faithful for the last time from the balcony of his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo on Thursday. (REUTERS/ Tony Gentile)

MANCHESTER - As the hours closed on Pope Benedict XVI's papacy, Bishop Peter A. Libasci Thursday celebrated a special Mass to express gratitude and "deep affection" for the Pope and pray for the cardinals who will choose his successor later this month.

Shortly after, Catholic churches across the city and state pealed their bells in unison for eight minutes until 2 p.m. to coincide with the moment Benedict voluntarily stepped down from the seat he held for nearly eight years.

"Retirement should always be such a joyful occasion," Libasci told the estimated 150 people who packed the pews and filled the back of St. Joseph Cathedral Chapel at the conclusion of the Mass.

Libasci called Benedict, 85, a "teacher par excellence" whose writings guided the Catholic church and brought the "light of faith" to a world darkened by totalitarianism, secularism and what he described as overzealous reforms unleashed by the Second Vatican Council.

The bishop likened Benedict to "the Easter candle coming into the darkened church. He came among us and he goes more deeply into the church to bring that light of the risen Christ to burn brightly."

"We are going to remember to turn on those lights and look forward to his successor," he added.

Libasci noted Benedict, who wrote three encyclicals and is now known as Pope emeritus, repeatedly warned people against putting "God to the side" and the false belief they are in total control of their destinies.

"He called us as people of faith to live the faith - live the faith in its purest form so that we become the attractive alternative to the disappointments and the emptiness of a world gone mad by relying on its own power, its own desire, its own end in its sight," the bishop said.

He compared Benedict's life to the seasons of nature, beginning with a youth spent under Nazi domination in his native Germany. In the "great summer of his life," Benedict was a theologian.

At 78, Benedict accepted his role as leader of the universal Catholic church and now, in the winter of his life, wears "the white cassock of a Pope emeritus."

Worshippers made special trips to Manchester or used lunch breaks to honor and celebrate Benedict's papacy and pray for his successor.

"This is a special Mass for us. The Pope is so important in our church," said Pauline Heckathorne of Manchester, who came with her friend, Hilaise Thomas.

Heckathorne said she prays for a new Pope and "that the church finds peace finally because there are so many people talking about the church and trying to tear it down."

Maureen Planchak, 63, walked toward the chapel leading her two granddaughters by their hands.

"This is the mother church for the whole state of New Hampshire. So, when something important happens, we always gather here," the Derry mother explained.

William Horan, 72, of Manchester, said the church is in the midst of a "major" transition and prays for a Pope who "will open the windows ... and let in the fresh air."

"I want to open things up more to women, to gay people, to the poor, but the big thing is the poor," explained Horan, who retired from the Hillsborough County nursing home where he had worked as a nurse's aide and driver.

Lillian Pepin, 78, of the West Side, prayed for the Pope and the future of what she said is a struggling church under attack.

"They are assailing the church right now, and we need to get somebody who is a little younger and can handle it ... We need someone who can strengthen the church and bring back the holiness that belongs to it," added Pepin, who attends Sacred Heart Parish.