February 18, 2013

Pope blesses huge crowd in St. Peter's Square

Tens of thousands of cheering people turn out for one of Benedict's last appearances as pontiff.

By FRANCES D'EMILIO/The Associated Press

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.

click image to enlarge

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.

The Associated Press

click image to enlarge

A pigeon flies in front of Pope Benedict XVI as he waves to the faithful during the Angelus noon prayer he celebrated from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter's Square on Sunday.

The Associated Press

Last week, the 85-year-old Benedict shocked the world by announcing his resignation. He will step down 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 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 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.

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.

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.

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

(Continued on page 2)

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