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Pope makes one of his final appearances, Rome braces for change (+video)

On Sunday, upward of 100,000 people attended a blessing by Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peter's Square, one of the pope's final public appearances. Rome and Vatican City are bracing for large crowds of pilgrims and tourists expected for the election of the new pope. 

By Frances D'EmilioAssociated Press / February 18, 2013

A priest displays a placard in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican as he follows Pope Benedict XVI reciting the Angelus prayer from the window of his apartments, Sunday. Pope Benedict XVI blessed the faithful from his window overlooking St. Peter's Square for the first time since announcing his resignation, cheered by an emotional crowd of tens of thousands of well-wishers from around the world.

Riccardo De Luca/AP

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Vatican City

His arms outstretched in a symbolic embrace, Pope Benedict XVI blessed tens of thousands of cheering people on Sunday in one of his last appearances as pontiff from his window overlooking St. Peter's Square.

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Last week, 85-year-old Benedict shocked the world by announcing his resignation. He will step down on Feb. 28, planning to retreat to a life of prayer in a monastery behind the Vatican's ancient walls.

The noontime appointment in the vast cobblestone square also served as a kind of trial run for how Rome will handle the logistics, including crowd security, as the city braces for faithful to flock to Rome for the election and installation of the cardinal who will succeed Benedict as leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.

Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno said upward of 100,000 people turned out Sunday and that everything went smoothly. But while there was still space in St. Peter's Square for more, many couldn't get in — or easily out — because entrances from the main boulevard were just too narrow.

The huge crowd — including parents with babies in carriages and strollers, elderly people using canes, and the disabled in wheelchairs — tried to squeeze through two spaces police left open in the metal barricades edging the square. Some people panicked or called out to police to help them get in or out of the square.

Pilgrims and tourists had an easier time if they entered through spaces in the elegant colonnade that architect Gianlorenzo Bernini designed to cradle the sides of the St. Peter's Square.

Benedict seemed touched by the outpouring of affection after his decision to go down in history as the first pontiff in some 600 years to resign. The pontiff told cardinals last week that he no longer has the mental and physical stamina to vigorously shepherd the church.

Looking into hazy sunshine Sunday, he smiled shyly at the sight of the crowd below, filled with pilgrims waving their countries' flags and holding up banners with words of support. One group of Italians raised a banner which read: "We love you."

Speaking in Italian, the pope told the cheering crowd: "Thanks for turnout in such numbers! This, too, is a sign of the affection and the spiritual closeness that you are giving me in these days." He stretched out his arms as if to embrace the faithful from across the vast expanse of the square.

Benedict made no direct reference to his departure. But in his comments to Spanish-speaking pilgrims he asked the faithful to "continue praying for me and for the nextpope."

The traditional Sunday window appearance normally attracts a few thousand pilgrims and tourists, but this time city officials prepared for as many as 150,000 people seeking to witness one of Benedict's last opportunities to connect with the masses.

Authorities also used the event as a kind of trial run for the crowds expected to flock to the square in the coming weeks for the next pope's installation.

Following tradition, Benedict's successor will make his first papal appearance by stepping onto the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica on the square, shortly after puffs of white smoke from the Sistine Chapel chimney tell the world the cardinals have made their secret selection.

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