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Packed for penultimate address

Vatican City, Feb. 17 (Reuters): Foreign tourists and Romans packed into St. Peter’s Square on Sunday for one of the last chances to see a Pope who won’t be pontiff in less than a fortnight.

In his penultimate Sunday address at St. Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict asked the faithful to pray for him and for the next Pope.

Speaking in Spanish, he said: “I beg you to continue praying for me and for the next Pope.”

It was not clear why the Pope chose Spanish to make the only specific reference to his upcoming resignation in his Sunday address.

The audience chanted “Long live the Pope”, waved banners and broke into sustained applause as he spoke from his window. The 85-year-old Benedict, who will abdicate on February 28, thanked them in several languages.

The Pope’s resignation appears to have caused more surprise than sadness.

“I was just excited that we were going to get to see him before he resigned, and thought it would be cool to be in Rome with something like that happening,” said Shea Wild, an American student who had planned the trip before Pope Benedict’s shock decision to step down.

“If he thought he wasn’t able to continue his duties as pope then, good for him for making the decision to resign,” said the 21-year-old Catholic as the cobble-stoned square began filling up.

Not everyone was so understanding of the 85-year-old’s decision that the effects of age meant he was unable to go on, and several compared Benedict unfavourably with his predecessor, John Paul II, who suffered a long, incapacitating illness before his death at 84 in 2005.

“It was a big disappointment because usually the pope is someone who carries out his role until the end,” said Hugo Barone, 60, a retired engineer from central Italy. “Maybe John Paul was made of tougher stuff, he saw it through to the end. Ratzinger can’t do it and prefers a better life,” he said, referring to Benedict by his family name.

“It’s completely wrong to leave his mission,” said Emanuele Vitali, a 22-year-old Sicilian studying economics in Rome who also said John Paul had done right in sticking to tradition and dying in office.

“Right to the last he managed to do his work, and even did it very well. It’s absolutely the wrong decision (to resign) because we are in a moment of social, ideological and cultural crisis and in a moment like that it is completely wrong for him to leave.”

With speculation that the new Pope might come from the developing world, rather than Europe as in the past, many people in the crowd wondered if the cardinals — the “princes” of the Church —might elect a pontiff from Africa.

“In the United States, they never thought they could have a non-white President and now they have one. Who knows what the cardinals are thinking?” said Antonio Mingrone, 68, a former employee of the railways.

The Biazzis, a family of Brazilians, who flew in from their holiday in Portugal after they heard of the pope’s resignation, said they hoped Benedict’s replacement would be from Brazil.

 
 
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