Retiring Pope Benedict asks for prayers

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VATICAN CITY -- Pope Benedict, in his penultimate Sunday address to a crowded St. Peter's Square before becoming the first pontiff in centuries to resign, asked the faithful to pray for him and for the next pope.

The crowd chanted "Long live the pope!," waved banners and broke into sustained applause as he spoke from his window. Benedict, 85, who will abdicate on Feb. 28, thanked them in several languages.

Speaking in Spanish, he told the crowd, which the Vatican said numbered more than 50,000: "I beg you to continue praying for me and for the next pope." It was not clear why the pope chose Spanish to make the only specific reference to his upcoming resignation.

Several cardinals have said they would be open to the possibility of a pope from the developing world, be it Latin America, Africa or Asia, as opposed to another from Europe, where the church is in crisis and polarized.

"I can imagine taking a step towards a black pope, an African pope or a Latin American pope," Cardinal Kurt Koch, a Swiss Vatican official who will enter the conclave to choose the next pope, told Reuters.

After his address, the pope retired into the Vatican's Apostolic Palace for a scheduled weeklong spiritual retreat and will not make any more public appearances until next Sunday.

Speaking in Italian in part of his address about Lent, the period when Christians reflect on their failings and seek guidance in prayer, the pope spoke of the difficulty of making important decisions.

"In decisive moments of life, or, on closer inspection, at every moment in life, we are at a crossroads: do we want to follow the 'I,' or God? The individual interest, or the real good, that which is really good?" he said.

The pope has said his physical and spiritual abilities are no longer strong enough to sustain him in the job of leading the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in a fast-changing world.

Benedict's papacy was rocked by crises over the sex abuse of children by priests in Europe and the United States, most of which preceded his time in office but came to light during it.

Since his shock announcement last Monday, the pope has said several times that he made the difficult decision to to resign for the good of the church. Aides said he was at peace with himself.

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