(Photo: Reuters/Osservatore Romano)
Pope Benedict XVI urged the tens of thousands of people gathered to listen to him on Sunday to "renew" and "refocus on God by disowning pride and egoism," in one of his last appearances as pontiff before he steps down on Feb. 28.
"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," Benedict, 85, said from his balcony, addressing a crowd of more than 100,000 people gathered at St Peter's Square.
Many pilgrims were holding flags of their countries and banners saying, "Thank You," "We Love You," and "We'll Miss You." The pope announced last Monday that he would retire after eight years in office due to advanced age which wouldn't allow him to lead the Catholic Church – the first pontiff in some 600 years to resign.
The Associated Press quoted the pope as telling the faithful on Sunday that during Lent "the church, which is mother and teacher, calls all its members to renew themselves in spirit, to reorient themselves decisively toward God, rejecting pride and egoism to live in love."
Speaking in Italian, the pope added, "In the decisive moments of life – indeed, if we look closely, in every moment – we are at a crossroads. Do we want to follow the self or God? Individual interest or the real good?"
Benedict also thanked the 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."
While he did not make any direct reference to his retirement, he asked the faithful to "continue praying for me and for the next pope" in his comments to Spanish-speaking pilgrims.
The pope plans to live a life of prayer in a monastery behind the Vatican's ancient walls after his retirement.
Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno told reporters that St. Peter's Square could have accommodated more than 100,000 people on Sunday, but the narrow entrances from the main boulevard kept many from coming in or going out.
The Sunday's event was a kind of trial run for the authorities, which are preparing for hosting a much larger crowd for the next pope's installation in the coming weeks.
As per the tradition, a new pope will make his first public appearance from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica on the square, preceded by puffs of white smoke from the Sistine Chapel chimney telling the world that the cardinals have made their secret selection.