Vatican City, February 13 - At his final public Mass as pope, Benedict XVI on Ash Wednesday drew attention to divisions in the Church body that some Vatican watchers claim compelled him to call an end to his pontificate this week. "The Church is sometimes faced with divisions in the church body," he said during a service that was moved to St Peter's to accomodate a large influx of people. The pontiff called on the faithful to overcome "individualism and rivalries" as a "humble and precious sign to those who are far from the faith". To listeners, his words seemed beyond the Church's crisis of dwindling numbers in the developed world. After the pope cited advancing age and declining health in his resignation announcement Monday, many have speculated that the pressures surrounding a raft of scandals within the Vatican were behind his decision to step down, becoming the first pontiff to do so since Celestine V in the 13th century. Those scandals culminated last year with the conviction of Paolo Gabriele, the pope's ex-butler, who was found guilty of taking confidential papal memos suggesting corruption and intrigue within the Holy See and leaking them to the Italian press - a betrayal that some Vatican insiders say may have been too much for the pontiff. On Wednesday friends of his told ANSA he was "surprised" but not "amazed" by the pope's decision to resign. Gabriele, who was pardoned by the pope and is now working as a clerk at St Paul's hospital in Rome, was not speaking to reporters this week beyond saying hello to watching cameras. Friends say that he was aware of renovations at the monastery Mater Ecclesiae, where the pope will eventually retire, but assumed they were for a senior cleric. Gabriele was sentenced to 18 months in jail, but received a full pardon after he wrote a letter to the pope begging forgiveness. Gabriele also said that he was "disappointed" by the Pope's resignation and that he has "always been very close to the Pope". He has told them that he regrets what he did, blaming some kind of "delirium" that seized him. But Vatican watchers have long suspected that he was a pawn in an ongoing power struggle between cardinals eager to assert their influence, either during this papacy or the next. Meanwhile Rome is abuzz with preparations for the conclave to elect his successor, which will begin 15-20 days after he steps down on February 28, Vatican Spokesman Federico Lombardi said on Wednesday. "If all goes well, it will start on March 15," he said. Cardinals will gather from around the world for the vote, which follow strict guidelines to ensure it is valid and secret. Leadership at the Vatican Bank is also set to change within the next few days, despite the shock created by the pope's resignation, a spokesman said Wednesday. The hunt to find a replacement for the head of the Institute for Religious Works (IOR), the official name of the Vatican's bank, is continuing successfully, said the Vatican press office. "It's likely that in the next days there will be the appointment of the president of the IOR," Lombardi said. "The process started a long time ago and I see no reason to stop due to the resignation of the pope". The IOR has been without a president since May 2012 when its Italian head Ettore Gotti Tedeschi resigned, following a no-confidence vote by the board of directors of the bank. The job was temporarily filled by Vice-President Ronaldo Hermann Schmitz. Vatican experts have speculated that part of the reason Gotti Tedeschi's split with the bank was over internal tensions linked to the bank's efforts to get onto an international 'white list' of countries which are considered to have acceptable financial transparency laws. The bank has in the past been linked with numerous scandals including allegations of money laundering. And in recent days Gotti Tedeschi has been questioned by prosecutors investigating suspect operations at the troubled Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS) bank. The prosecutors wanted to talk to Gotti Tedeschi about MPS's nine-billion-euro acquisition of smaller bank Antonveneta in 2008 from Spanish bank Santander, which just a year earlier had been valued at only six billion euros, raising suspicions of a slush fund. Gotti Tedeschi was in charge of Santander's operations in Italy before becoming president of the IOR in 2009. Before passing that scandal and others on to his yet-to-be-named successor, Benedict is planning his final private audiences as pope with Italy's leaders, who are also in transition. On Saturday he plans to meet behind closed doors with Italy's caretaker premier, followed by the country's outgoing president on 23, a Vatican spokesperson said on Wednesday. Monti, who has led a technical government since late 2011, announced his resignation late last year and is campaigning for a popular political mandate in parliamentary elections February 24-25. The Italian head of state, Giorgio Napolitano, will see his seven-year term come to an end in May. Earlier Wednesday, Benedict was welcomed by a long, loud ovation of applause when he entered the Paul VI hall in the Vatican for his penultimate general audience and his first public appearance since making his famous announcement Monday. He waved at the faithful with a big smile and asked them to keep praying for him when he is no longer the head of the Catholic Church. "Continue to pray for me, for the Church, for the future pope, the Lord will guide us," Benedict said. He said he made the decision to step down "in full liberty for the good of the Church, after praying for a long time and examining my conscience before God, well aware of the seriousness of this act, but equally aware of no longer being capable of exercising the Petrine ministry with the strength that this requires". He added that the affection of the faithful had helped him through "these days that have not been easy for me," but that he regardless "felt love almost tangibly".