Pope calls on Church to 'renew' and 'refocus' in penultimate public blessing

VATICAN CITY (AFP, AP) - Pope Benedict XVI called on the Church and its faithful on Sunday to "renew" and "refocus on God by disowning pride and egoism" in his penultimate Angelus prayer before he steps down.

"The Church calls on all its members to renew themselves... which constitutes a fight, a spiritual battle, because the evil spirit wants us to deviate from the road towards God," he said from his balcony overlooking tens of thousands of faithful gathered in St Peter's Square.

Local authorities said a crowd of more than 100,000 people had turned out to see the 85-year-old Pope, who announced on Monday that he would step down on Feb 28 after eight years in office due to advanced age.

Many of the faithful waved flags and held up banners saying "grazie" or "danke", the words for "thank you" in Italian and the Pope's native German.

The Pontiff thanked the crowd for turning out in such large numbers, calling it a "sign of affection and spiritual closeness", and the onlookers responded by calling out, "Viva il Papa!" (Long live the Pope!).

Benedict is only the second Pontiff to resign of his own free will in 2,000 years.

The Pope's voice was strong and clear as he looked into hazy sunshine over the square packed with pilgrims, whom he addressed in Italian, English, French, German, Polish and Spanish.

Benedict made no direct reference to his stunning decision to step down on Feb 28, but in his comments to Spanish-speaking pilgrims he asked the faithful to "continue praying for me and for the next pope". And he thanked the faithful for their "affection and spiritual closeness." The crowd broke out into cheers and wild applause.

The Pope gave particular thanks to the "beloved inhabitants of the city of Rome", a possible hint at the title he will take after retirement. The Vatican has suggested he may be called "emeritus bishop of Rome".

The traditional noon appointment normally attracts a few thousand pilgrims and tourists, but city officials prepared for a crush of people seeking to witness a moment of history.

"We wanted to wish him well," said Ms 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 crowds, and offered free shuttle vans for the elderly and disabled.

While cardinals elect his successor next month in a secrecy-steeped conclave in the Sistine Chapel, the 85-year-old Benedict will be in retreat at the Holy See's summer estate in the hills south-east 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 had not 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 on Sunday at Rome's airport that the churchmen should select their new leader with "serenity and trust".

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