Tens of thousands of people flocked to the Vatican City’s St Peter’s Square on Sunday, to witness an emotional Benedict XVI deliver his last Sunday prayers as Pope before stepping down on Thursday.
Pope Benedict XVI delivered an emotional last Sunday prayer in St Peter's Square, saying God had told him to devote himself to prayer but assuring supporters he would not "abandon" the Church.
Tens of thousands of supporters turned out for the historic prayers ahead of the pope's formal resignation on Thursday, often interrupting the pope with their clapping, cheering and chanting.
POPE BENEDICT'S SHOCK RESIGNATION
- Gay rights in France: After marriage equality, what's next?
- Polish pope devotees petition against French plan to axe cross
- Polish Catholics pray at borders 'to save country'
- Thousands march in Dublin for abortion rights
- French Cardinal Barbarin to face trial for covering up clerical sex abuse
- Video: Ivorians celebrate Feast of Assumption in world's largest church
- Cardinal Pell denies sex abuse charges in Australian court
- Report alleges 'hellish abuse' at German Catholic choir school
"The Lord is calling me to climb the mountain, to dedicate myself even more to prayer and meditation. But this does not mean abandoning the Church," the pope told the crowd from the window of his residence in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican.
"If God is asking me to do this it is precisely so I can continue to serve with the same dedication and love as before but in a way that is more appropriate for my age and for my strength."
The 85-year-old leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics has said he will step down because he no longer has the strength of mind and body to carry on.
His shock resignation ended an eight-year pontificate dominated by the priest child sex abuse scandal and efforts to counter rising secularism in the West.
He thanked the crowd with a final unscripted call, telling them: "We will always be close!"
The Vatican and Rome police estimated the numbers at more than 100,000 people -- many times more than usually attend the traditional Sunday prayer.
"Holy Father, We Love You", read one banner seen in the crowd. One read: "Thank You, Your Holiness" and another said: "Dear Father, We'll Miss You".
"I have come to support the pope and to ask for his blessing," said Joao-Paulo, a 26-year-old trainee priest from Brazil who came with fellow seminarians.
Profile: Pope Benedict XVI
Claire Therese Heyne, a 34-year-old theology student from the United States, said the pope "must have had a very strong reason" to leave.
"It is an act of courage and humility," she said.
Benedict will be only the second pope to resign of his own free will in the Church's 2,000-year history, and the first to do so since the Middle Ages.
But Gianpaolo, 33, said Benedict had been "less courageous" than his predecessors, and many people looked ahead to the pope's successor and stressed the need for major reforms.
"The Church has to have a major reflection after this resignation. Something has changed inside the Church and this decision reflects this," said Gianpaolo, who came with his two sons.
Forty-five-year old Linda came from Wales in Britain for the event, saying: "He was not so open as the last popes before him. A new pope should be more open to people, to new ideas."
There was tight security in and around the Vatican, with more than 100 police officers and snipers on surrounding buildings, as well as two field clinics and hundreds of volunteers to help pilgrims.
The security is being seen as preparation for the pope's final general audience in St Peter's on Wednesday where around 200,000 people are expected.
Some Italian media have speculated his health may be far worse than the Vatican revealed, and others have said an explosive report into the "Vatileaks" scandal may be to blame.
The Vatican's Secretariat of State -- effectively the government of the Catholic Church -- took the unusual step on Saturday of issuing a formal statement condemning "completely false news stories".
The Panorama news weekly and the Repubblica daily said a report by a committee of cardinals into the leaks of confidential papal papers last year had uncovered allegations of intrigue, corruption and blackmail in the Vatican.
No clear favourite has emerged to succeed Joseph Ratzinger. But many observers say the cardinals, who make the choice, may plump for a much younger candidate who is a more pastoral figure than the academic Benedict.
A series of meetings of cardinals starting Friday will determine the date of the start of the conclave to elect a new pope. The Vatican has hinted that it could be brought forward to early March since there is no papal funeral.
Conclaves can last for days before a candidate wins a two-thirds majority.
The Vatican has said Benedict will retire to the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo near Rome for the next two or three months while a former monastery inside the Vatican is renovated.
Benedict has said he will live "hidden from the world" but Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi has said he could provide "spiritual guidance" to his successor and will likely continue to publish his theological research.
Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, 64
The bookies’ favourite with Paddy Power giving him 3/1, Turkson is head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and is considered a progressive candidate. Turkson has said that "If God would wish to see a black man also as pope, thanks be to God". ©AFP
Angelo Scola, 71
Scola is Archbishop of Milan, a position held by two of his 20th century predecessors. He is considered by many to be Benedict XVI’s right-hand man and is rumoured to be the current Pope’s chosen successor. Ladbrookes gives him odds of 7/1. ©AFP
Francis Arinze, 80
At 80 years old, Arinze still qualifies to be a member of the College of Cardinals. Known for his sense of humour and frankness, the Nigerian is another bookies' favourite (Ladbrookes 5/1) and was seen as a potential successor to John Paul II in the 2005 conclave. ©AFP
Leonardo Sandri, 69
Argentinian Sandri is head of the Vatican's office for Eastern rite churches. He earned fame as the "voice" of Pope John Paul II when the pontiff lost the ability to speak because of Parkinson's Disease. The bookies give him 7/1. ©AFP
Marc Ouellet, 68
Ouellet, a Canadian from French-speaking Quebec, is fluent in French, English, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and German. Ladbrookes gives the current head of the Congregation for Bishops 3/1 odds, making him one of the strongest candidates to the betting public. ©AFP
Tarcisio Bertone, 78 (left)
As the Vatican’s secretary of state, Bertone will be the man responsible for the Catholic Church between the pope’s resignation and the election of a new pontiff. Bertone, who gets odds of 16/1, has proposed universal free access to anti-AIDS drugs. ©AFP
Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga
Maradiaga was made bishop at the age of 36 and is considered to be left of other more conservative candidates. President of Caritas International, the Honduran is a staunch defender of human rights and is known for helping the poor. Paddy Power gives him 7/1. ©AFP
Date created : 2013-02-24