Tourists, Romans seek piece of history at pope's Sunday prayer

VATICAN CITY Sun Feb 17, 2013 10:23am EST

People wave as Pope Benedict XVI leads the Sunday Angelus in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican February 17, 2013. Pope Benedict, speaking before a larger than usual crowd at his penultimate Sunday address, asked the faithful to pray for him and for the next pope. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

People wave as Pope Benedict XVI leads the Sunday Angelus in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican February 17, 2013. Pope Benedict, speaking before a larger than usual crowd at his penultimate Sunday address, asked the faithful to pray for him and for the next pope.

Credit: Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Foreign tourists and Romans packed into St. Peter's Square on Sunday for one of the last chances in history to see Pope Benedict, whose resignation 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 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 unfavorably 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 Biazzi's, 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.

But with Italian politics and industry beset by scandal, and even the Vatican's own bank under investigation for money laundering, few Romans seemed keen on the next pope being Italian.

"An Italian might just personify the Italian situation," said Liborio Truncali, 50.

For Italians, Benedict's resignation has added to a sense of uncertainty as they face elections next week to replace an unelected 'technocrat' government appointed to stop the country spiraling into economic chaos.

"It's unsettling," said retiree Mingrone. "At a time when there are all these political scuffles and an economic crisis, it is one more thing weighing on our minds."

But even with the sudden uncertainty about who will lead a Church of 1.2 billion people, reeling from child sex abuse scandals and challenged by secularism and by other religions, Italians expressed more faith in the Vatican's ability to overcome its problems than in their country.

"Governments form and fall and then there's a battle between the parties. It's an on-going crisis," said Barone, convinced that the Church would survive the leadership question unscathed.

Most Romans seemed to agree, several quoting a common Roman saying that means 'things will turn out ok': "A pope dies, they make another one."

(editing by Philip Pullella)

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