Pope Benedict's 'bittersweet' final prayer
Many of the Catholics packed into St Peter's Square yesterday expressed a sense of malaise about seeing Pope Benedict give his last weekly blessing before resigning from a position traditionally seen as a commitment until death.
"This is an ill wind blowing," said midwife Marina Tacconi as a chilly gust blew across the square.
"It feels like something ugly could happen. I'm 58 years old. I have seen popes come and go, but never one resign. I don't see it as a good thing."
Pilgrims held posters thanking the 85-year-old pontiff, who elicited a huge cheer when he appeared at his window over the square for the last time.
But one banner among the many read: "We don't understand you".
In his final Sunday blessing before leaving office on Thursday for a life of prayer and meditation, Benedict said he was "not abandoning the church".
But many there to see him off said they were confused and upset by his decision.
"The news of his resignation was a blow for everyone. We lack a uniting figure," said Mirko Ninni, an unemployed 22-year-old.
Dressed in rough sack cloth and with blistered, bare feet, pilgrim Massimo Coppo drew a crowd as he railed against the Vatican hierarchy, saying it was alienated from the people.
"There is too much money in the church. We must offer them our hearts, not our money," shouted the grey-bearded Coppo to applause and shouts of "Make him pope immediately"!
Disunity in the church is one of many challenges faced by an institution plagued by a series of sexual abuse scandals and allegations of corruption.
"The church is going through a difficult moment," said Sara Laurenzano, 20, a Rome student.
She said Benedict had suffered in comparison to his widely beloved predecessor, John Paul II.
"[Benedict] wasn't a uniting figure," said Laurenzano. "The new pope will need to lead us out of this adversity; we need someone to unite us."
The next pontiff is expected to take over before the Easter weekend at the end of next month.
He will face increasing secularisation, cultural change and ever-falling church attendance in many Western countries.
Other pilgrims sought to take something positive from Benedict's decision.
"It's bittersweet," said Sarah Ennis, 21, a student from Minnesota, US, who studies in Rome.
"Bitter because we love our pope and hate to see him go; sweet because he is going for a good reason and we are anxious to see the next pope."