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Pope blesses huge crowd in St. Peter’s Square

A priest held a placard in support of Pope Benedict XVI, who was reciting the Angelus prayer over St. Peter’s Square.

Riccardo De Luca/Associated Press

A priest held a placard in support of Pope Benedict XVI, who was reciting the Angelus prayer over St. Peter’s Square.

VATICAN CITY — His arms outstretched in a symbolic embrace, Pope Benedict XVI blessed tens of thousands of cheering people on Sunday in one of his last appearances as pontiff from his window overlooking St. Peter’s Square.

Last week, 85-year-old Benedict shocked the world by announcing his resignation.

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He will step down on Feb. 28, planning to retreat to a life of prayer in a monastery behind the Vatican’s ancient walls.

The noontime appointment in the vast cobblestone square also served as a kind of trial run for how Rome will handle the logistics, including crowd security, as the city braces for faithful to flock to Rome for the election and installation of the cardinal who will succeed Benedict as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

Mayor Gianni Alemanno of Rome said that upward of 100,000 people turned out Sunday and that everything went smoothly.

But while there was still space in St. Peter’s Square for more, many couldn’t get in — or easily out — because ­entrances from the main boulevard were just too narrow.

The huge crowd — including parents with babies in carriages , elderly people using canes, and the disabled in wheelchairs — tried to squeeze through two spaces police left open in the metal barricades edging the square.

Some people panicked or called out to police to help them get in or out of the square.

Pilgrims and tourists had an easier time if they entered through spaces in the elegant colonnade that architect Gianlorenzo Bernini designed to cradle the sides of the St. ­Peter’s Square.

Benedict seemed touched by the outpouring of affection after his decision to go down in history as the first pontiff in some 600 years to resign.

The pontiff told cardinals last week that he no longer has the mental and physical stamina to vigorously shepherd the church.

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