Vatican Braces for Huge Crowd on Feb 27, Last Public Appearance of Pope Benedict

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Pope Benedict XVI has just thirteen days left in his eight-year reign as leader of the Roman Catholic Church. It means that Vatican City has just barely two weeks left to prepare for an expected surge in pilgrims and visitors who would attend the last papal general audience on Feb 27.

Although the Vatican draws thousands of visitors daily because of the place's prominence among Catholics and the presence of numerous works of art and known landmarks, the last day of Pope Benedict's reign would be a historic event because it would be the first time in six centuries that a pope quit his post.

Known before as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the German pontiff defended on Wednesday his decision to step down on Feb 28. The decision shocked the world which expected him to hold on to his post until his death, as most of his predecessors had done.

"As you know, I have decided to renounce the ministry that the Lord gave to me on April 19, 2005. I did this in full liberty for the good of the church," he said in his first public appearance since the Monday announcement. He asked the faithful to continue to pray for him and the church.

After recovering from the shock, Vatican officials are now preparing for the mid-March conclave that would lead to the election by about 180 cardinals for the next pope.

Focus is now on who will be the next pope amid speculations that the next pontiff should be a non-European and a better representative of the growing number of Catholics in third world nations.

Besides finding a new pope, Vatican officials are thinking of an appropriate title for the soon-to-be-retired pope since he could not simply revert to being Cardinal Ratzinger. Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi said Pope Benedict would likely be given an honorific title such as Bishop of Emeritus of Rome.

Pope Benedict presided over the Ash Wednesday Mass, his last Mass in public, held at the St Peter's Basilica instead of a smaller Rome church as traditionally done because of the large crowed that turned up.

Although Vatican has over 500 residents, only 220 live there, but about 17,000 people visit the city daily. In October, Vatican said it was considering limiting the number of visitors at the Sistine Chapel which houses the famous ceiling painting of Michaelangelo. The chapel celebrated its 500th birthday.

However, with a very important chapter in the centuries-old history of the Catholic Church about to unfold in the next two weeks, it would be next to impossible to stop the deluge of pilgrims, media and the plain curious who want to witness the end of Pope Benedict's reign and the start of his successor's rule.

Expected to benefit from the rash of visitors to the Holy See are hotels, restaurants and transport provides in the city as well as in Rome. However, it is expected to be a nightmare for the traffic and security managers as well as Vatican's media bureau as the world waits who will be the Catholic Church's next leader.

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