Tens of thousands of people toting banners saying “Thank you!” jammed St Peter’s Square today to bid farewell to Pope Benedict XVI.
At his final general audience – the appointment he kept each week to teach the world about the Catholic faith – St Peter’s was overflowing with pilgrims and curios onlookers were picking spots along the main street nearby to watch the event on giant TV screens.
Some 50,000 tickets were requested for Benedict’s final master class, but Italian media estimated the number of people actually attending could be double that.
With chants of “Benedetto” erupting every so often, the mood – even hours before Benedict was to arrive – was far more buoyant than during the Pope’s final Sunday blessing and recalled the jubilant turnouts which often accompanied him at World Youth Days and events involving his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.
His final farewell came just two years after 70,000 people welcomed Pope Benedict to Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park in September 2010.
Scottish pilgrims waited for up to seven hours to get a glimpse of their leader and the mass was beamed live around the world to a television audience of about one billion viewers.
It was the second time Bellahouston had opened its gates to a Pontiff, almost three decades after Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass with about 300,000 worshippers in 1982.
In the Vatican City, the Pope greeted the crowds by making several rounds of the square as he was cheered wildly.
He stopped to kiss a half-dozen children brought up to him by his secretary.
During his final audience he recalled ‘joy and light’ during his papacy, but also difficult times.
Benedict thanked his cardinals, colleagues and ordinary faithful for their support and for respecting his decision to become the first Pope in 600 years to resign.
He said that “to love the church means also to have the courage to take difficult, painful decisions, always keeping the good of the church in mind, not oneself.”
Tomorrow, Benedict will become the first Pope in 600 years to resign, a decision he said he took after realising that, at 85, he simply did not have the strength of mind or body to carry on in the arduous role as leader of the world’s Catholic community.
After his general audience today, he will meet cardinals for a final time tomorrow morning and then fly by helicopter to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome.
There, at 8pm, the doors of the palazzo will close and the Swiss Guards in attendance will go off duty, their service protecting the head of the Catholic Church over – for now.
Many of the cardinals who will choose Benedict’s successor were in St Peter’s Square for his final audience.
They included retired Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, object of a grass-roots campaign in the US to persuade him to excuse himself from the vote for having covered up for sexually abusive priests.
Cardinal Mahony has said he will vote.
Vatican officials said cardinals will begin meeting on Monday to decide when to set the date for the conclave to elect the next pope.
But the rank-and-file in the crowd today were not concerned with the future; they wanted to savour the final moments with the Pope they have known for eight years.
“I came to thank him for the testimony that he has given the church,” said Maria Cristina Chiarini, a 52-year-old mum who travelled from Lugo, near Ravenna, with some 60 members of her parish early today.
“There’s nostalgia, human nostalgia, but also comfort, because as a Christian we have hope. The Lord won’t leave us without a guide.”