TENS of thousands of people toting banners saying “Thank you!” have filled St Peter’s Square to bid farewell to Pope Benedict XVI at his final general audience.
St Peter’s was overflowing and pilgrims and curiosity-seekers 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 arrived – 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.
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.
After his general audience today, he will meet cardinals for a final time tomorrow morning and then fly by helicopter to the papal 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, including retired Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, object of a grass-roots campaign in the US to persuade him to recuse himself for having covered up for sexually abusive priests. Cardinal Mahony has said he will vote.