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Crowds gather for pope's Sunday blessing

6:16 AM, Feb 17, 2013   |    comments
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VATICAN CITY (AP) - Crowds gathered in St. Peter's Square for Pope Benedict XVI's first Sunday window blessing since his stunning retirement announcement, and the second-to-last before he leaves the papacy.

The traditional noon appointment normally attracts a few thousand pilgrims and tourists, but city officials were expecting as many as 150,000 people to flock to the vast cobblestone square for one of their last chances to see the pontiff before he relinquishes his stewardship of the Roman Catholic church and its nearly 1.2 billion members.

"We wanted to wish him well," said Amy Champion, a tourist from Wales. "It takes a lot of guts to take the job and even more guts ... to quit."

From Sunday evening, the pope will be out of the public eye for an entire week: A meditation service at the Vatican marks the beginning of the traditional Lenten period of reflection and prayer.

Rome threw on extra buses and subway trains to help deal with the expected crush of people, and offered free shuttle vans for the elderly and disabled.

Benedict shocked the world last week by announcing he is resigning on Feb. 28 - the first papal abdication in 600 years. While cardinals elect his successor next month in a secrecy-steeped conclave in the Sistine Chapel, the ailing, 85-year-old Benedict will be in retreat at the Holy See's summer estate in the hills southeast of Rome.

After several weeks, he is expected to move into a monastery being refurbished for him behind Vatican City's walls and lead a largely cloistered life.

The Vatican hasn't announced the date of the start of the conclave, but said on Saturday that it might start sooner than March 15, the earliest date it can be launched under current rules. Benedict would have to sign off on any earlier date, an act that would be one of the last of his nearly eight-year papacy.

Meanwhile, the first cardinals started arriving in Rome to begin a period of intense politicking among the "princes of the church" to decide who are the leading candidates to be the next pope. Guinea-born Archbishop Robert Sarah, a cardinal who leads the Vatican's charity office, told reporters when he arrived Sunday at Rome's airport that the churchmen should select their new leader with "serenity and trust."

By Frances D'Emilio

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