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VATICAN CITY — His arms outstretched in a symbolic embrace, Pope Benedict XVI blessed tens of thousands of cheering people Sunday in one of his last appearances as Pontiff from his window overlooking St. Peter’s Square.
Last week, 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.
Benedict did not make any direct references Sunday to his decision to resign. But in his greetings to pilgrims in various languages, he called on them in Spanish to “continue praying for me and for the next pope.”
The crowd cheered for him, calling out “Viva il Papa!” — long live the Pope — and clapping out his name rhythmically: “Be-Ne-De-To!”
Dozens of homemade banners — mostly sheets stapled to wooden planks — swayed throughout the square, each an expression of affection for Benedict.
Some of the banners read “With the pope forever,” and “We love you very much.”
The noontime event also served as a kind of trial run for how Rome will handle the logistics, including crowd security, as the city braces for the faithful to flock to Rome for the election and installation of the cleric 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.
There was still room in St. Peter’s Square for more, but 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.
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.
He 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.
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.”
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.
In his address, which centered on the beginning of Lent, a 40-day period of reflection and repentance before Easter, the Pope called on the Roman Catholic Church and its members to refocus on God, “repudiating pride and egotism.”
“In the decisive moments of life — indeed, if we look closely, in every moment — we are at a crossroads. Do we want to follow the self or God? Individual interest or the real good?” he said.
On Sunday evening, the Pope began a weeklong Lenten spiritual retreat with the members of his household as well as cardinals and bishops.
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, is scheduled to preach during the retreat.
The Pope will not have any public engagements until Saturday, when he will meet with the president of Italy.
In the meantime, cardinals will gather in Rome to prepare for the conclave to elect his successor.
Church law states that a conclave must start between 15 and 20 days after the papacy becomes vacant.
But the Vatican has suggested that it might start sooner than March 15, the earliest date possible under current rules.
This has set off debate within the church.
“Church law should not be changed on a whim,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, an American Vatican expert. He said changing law “would be disruptive.”
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 selection.
Meanwhile, 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.