But some were dismayed that Benedict broke with the centuries-old tradition that popes serve till their last breath.
A youth group Militia Christi (Latin for Christ’s Militia) held a hand-painted banner asking the pope to stay. ‘‘We are asking him to change his mind. He is the good of the church,’’ said youth GiovanBattista Varricchio.
No decision has been announced on a date for the conclave to elect Benedict’s successor, but the Vatican has suggested that it might start sooner than March 15, the earliest date possible under current rules, which require a 15-20 day waiting period after the papacy becomes vacant. This has set off a debate whether such a change could be justified and whether it might benefit Rome-based cardinals who because of their positions at the church’s headquarters can count on their acquaintance with cardinals around the world.
‘‘Church law should not be changed on a whim,’’ said the Rev. Thomas Reese, an American Vatican expert. He said changing law ‘‘would be disruptive.’’
On Sunday evening, the pope began a customary week of Lenten period reflection ahead of Easter, and his next public remarks won’t come until Feb. 24, when he returns for his final studio window appearance over the square.
In his remarks to the throng Sunday, he told the faithful 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.’’
Benedict has chosen an Italian cardinal to preach to him and Vatican clergy during closed-door sessions in this week of meditation and prayer. The prelate, Gianfranco Ravasi, heads the Holy See’s culture office and is touted by some Vatican watchers as a leading candidate to be the next pope. But other observers contend he is heavily identified with one of the rival blocs of Italian prelates in the Vatican’s apparatus, which could hurt his chances.
Daniela Petroff contributed reporting.