50,000 turn out to hear penultimate Benedict blessing

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Pope Benedict XVI blessed the faithful from his window overlooking St Peter’s Square for the first time since announcing his resignation, cheered by an emotional crowd of tens of thousands of well-wishers.

Benedict triumphantly raised his arms outstretched to the crowd in his second-to-last Angelus blessing before leaving the papacy. The Sunday appointment is one of the most cherished traditions of the Catholic Church.

The Pope’s voice was strong and clear as he looked into hazy sunshine over the square packed with at least 50,000 pilgrims.

Benedict made no reference to his stunning decision to step down, but in an indirect nod, 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.

“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.”

The Pope will now be out of the public eye for an entire week.

While cardinals elect his successor next month in a secrecy-steeped conclave, 85-year-old Benedict, the first pontiff to resign in 600 years, will be in retreat at the Holy See’s summer estate in the hills south-east of Rome.

The Vatican has 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.