As days as pope dwindle, Benedict draws huge crowd

A Sunday crowd much larger than usual gathers at St. Peter's Square for one of Pope Benedict XVI's final window appearances at the Vatican. He will resign at the end of the month.
A Sunday crowd much larger than usual gathers at St. Peter's Square for one of Pope Benedict XVI's final window appearances at the Vatican. He will resign at the end of the month. (GREGORIO BORGIA / Associated Press)
Posted: February 18, 2013

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.

Last week, Benedict, 85, announced 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 the 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.

Benedict seemed touched by the outpouring of affection.

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 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 next pope."

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.

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