VATICAN CITY Many of the Catholics packed into St. Peter's Square On Sunday expressed a sense of malaise about seeing Pope Benedict give his last weekly blessing before resigning from a position traditionally seen as a commitment until death.
"This is an ill wind blowing," said midwife Marina Tacconi as a chilly gust blew across the square.
"It feels like something ugly could happen. I'm 58 years old. I have seen popes come and go, but never one resign. I don't see it as a good thing."
While many pilgrims held signs thanking the 85-year-old pontiff, who elicited a huge cheer when he appeared at his window over the square for the last time ever, one banner in the crowd read "Pope, we don't understand you".
"I feel very emotional and upset, full of gratitude and love and prayer," said Italian pilgrim Andreina Scuri.
In his final Sunday blessing address before leaving on Thursday for a life of prayer and meditation, Benedict said he was "not abandoning the Church". But many there to see him said they were confused and upset by his decision.
"The news of his resignation was a blow for everyone. We lack a uniting figure," said Mirko Ninni, an unemployed 22-year-old who said the abdication added to the sense of unease in Italy which is in deep recession and faces political uncertainty in a general election.
Dressed in rough sack cloth and with blistered bare feet, pilgrim Massimo Coppo drew a crowd as he railed against the Vatican hierarchy, saying it was alienated from the people.
"There is too much money in the Church. We must offer them our hearts, not our money," shouted the grey-bearded Coppo to applause and shouts of "Make him Pope, immediately!".
Disunity in the Church is one of many challenges faced by an institution plagued by a series of sexual abuse scandals and allegations of corruption.
"The people are scared and panicked like sheep in the night when they think there is a wolf among them," Coppo preached to the gathered crowd, who filmed him on mobile phones.
"The Church is going through a difficult moment," said Sara Laurenzano, 20, a Rome student who said Benedict had suffered in comparison to his widely beloved predecessor John Paul II.
The contrast with the adoring crowds who massed in the same square almost eight years ago as John Paul II lay dying was stark. The more charismatic pope had won widespread respect for opposing Soviet communism and for enduring a lengthy illness in the public eye.
"(Benedict) wasn't a uniting figure," said Laurenzano. "The new pope will need to lead us out of this adversity, we need someone to unite us."
The next pontiff, who is expected to take over before the Easter weekend at the end of March, will take up a battle against increasing secularisation, cultural change and ever-falling church attendance in many Western countries.
Sister Daniella, 58, said she and her fellow nuns at the order of the Sacred Sacrament based beside the Vatican had been initially stunned at the pope's decision to become the first pontiff in centuries to resign.
"It was a lightning bolt. But in the end we saw that the decision was done from a wish to serve the Church, " Sister Daniella said, wearing glasses and a light grey habit.
Other pilgrims also sought to take something positive from Benedict's decision.
"It's bittersweet," said Sarah Ennis, 21, a student from Minnesota who studies in Rome.
"Bitter because we love our Pope Benedict and hate to see him go, but sweet because he is going for a good reason and we are excited to see the next pope."
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