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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. 

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On Sunday, extra buses and subway trains ran from Rome's train stations to near the Vatican, and free shuttle vans offered lifts to the elderly or disabled.

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Mayor Alemanno has asked Italy's government to put aside its austerity agenda and give Rome a few million euros (dollars) to help pay for security, garbage pickup and other logistics for the Vatican crowds.

On Sunday, several in the crowd were exhausted and shaken by their attempts to get into the square between the metal barriers.

"You can't invite thousands of people and then bottleneck the entrance and exit to the square," said Gianbattista Di Rese, an Italian among the distressed. "Imagine if someone had had a bomb. There could have been hundreds of dead." He got into the square but was stymied trying to get out.

Tourists must go through metal detectors before entering St. Peter's Basilica, but there is no such security to stroll the square.

An Associated Press reporter saw many people give up. Some started to panic and yell at police to do something to ease the bottleneck.

Those who arrived hours before the pope appeared could enter the square with ease for a chance to join in the show of support for him. "We wanted to wish him well," said Amy Champion, a tourist from Wales. "It takes a lot of guts to take the job and even more guts ... to quit."

But some were dismayed that Benedict broke with the centuries-old tradition that popes serve till their last breath.

A youth group Militia Christi (Latin for Christ's Militia) held a hand-painted banner asking the pope to stay. "We are asking him to change his mind. He is the good of the church," said youth GiovanBattista Varricchio.

No decision has been announced on a date for the conclave to elect Benedict's successor, but the Vatican has suggested that it might start sooner than March 15, the earliest date possible under current rules, which require a 15-20 day waiting period after the papacy becomes vacant. This has set off a debate whether such a change could be justified and whether it might benefit Rome-based cardinals who because of their positions at the church's headquarters can count on their acquaintance with cardinals around the world.

"Church law should not be changed on a whim," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, an American Vatican expert. He said changing law "would be disruptive."

On Sunday evening, the pope began a customary week of Lenten period reflection ahead of Easter, and his next public remarks won't come until Feb. 24, when he returns for his final studio window appearance over the square.

In his remarks to the throng Sunday, he told the faithful that during Lent "the church, which is mother and teacher, calls all its members to renew themselves in spirit, to reorient themselves decisively toward God, rejecting pride and egoism to live in love."

Benedict has chosen an Italian cardinal to preach to him and Vatican clergy during closed-door sessions in this week of meditation and prayer. The prelate, Gianfranco Ravasi, heads the Holy See's culture office and is touted by some Vatican watchers as a leading candidate to be the next pope. But other observers contend he is heavily identified with one of the rival blocs of Italian prelates in the Vatican's apparatus, which could hurt his chances.

Daniela Petroff contributed reporting.

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