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'Thanks for the turnout!' Benedict tells crowd

| Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013, 7:51 p.m.

As many as 100,000 jammed St. Peter's Square on Sunday morning for one of the last public appearances of Pope Benedict XVI.

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 Associated Press reported. He stretched out his arms as if to embrace the faithful from across the vast expanse of the square.

The traditional Sunday appearance by the pontiff normally attracts a few thousand pilgrims and tourists.

Benedict, who shocked the world by announcing last week his intention to resign, made no direct reference to his departure. But in his comments to Spanish-speaking pilgrims he asked the faithful to “continue praying for me and for the next pope.”

On Sunday night, Benedict began a Lenten retreat, leaving behind a world of speculation about why he resigned and who will replace him next month.

The Vatican's vague announcements feed the fire. The latest was from the Vatican spokesman who speculated whether it was possible to speed up the election for Benedict's successor.

Church law is clear that a conclave is to be held no earlier than 15 days after the papacy is vacated. So a change would require finding a loophole in the densely woven canon laws on conclaves -- or getting a dispensation. Then it would be a frantic push to racewalk a new pontiff up the nave of St. Peter's for his installation so he'd be in place for Palm Sunday, March 24.

That's a bad idea, Vatican expert Rev. Thomas Reese told USA Today. Among his reasons rushing “would be a mistake,” Reese said that church law should not be changed on a whim. “Only the pope can change the rules; once he resigns, no one can change the rules.”

After 8 p.m. on Feb. 28, Benedict will mostly likely be known as Joseph Ratzinger, bishop emeritus of Rome. After a respite at Castel Gondolfo, the pope's summer home, he will live as he has chosen, hidden away in a monastery in the Vatican gardens.

On Sunday at St. Peter's Square, a tourist from Wales, Amy Champion, told the Associated Press, “We wanted to wish him well. It takes a lot of guts to take the job and even more guts ... to quit.”

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