Pope Benedict leads the Angelus prayer from the window of his apartment at the Vatican(Photo: AP)
VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI celebrated his final Sunday blessing in front of a massive crowd in St. Peter's Square, even as a controversy alleging a network of gay clergy working within the Vatican walls grew.
Benedict did not address the controversy directly, though he did explain his reasons for becoming the first pope in nearly 600 years to abdicate.
"The Lord God has called me to go to the top of the hill in order to dedicate myself again to prayer and to meditation," Benedict told the tens of thousands of faithful gathered for the blessing. "But this does not mean I shall abandon the church."
Sunday was not the 85-year-old's last public appearance. He is expected to perform his traditional Wednesday blessing at St. Peter's, and he may also be visible on Thursday as he officially ends his papacy, leaving the Vatican for several weeks of repose in the mountain village of Castel Gandolfo, near Rome.
The crowd on hand Sunday was emotional, with several shouting "We love you!" and "God bless you!" and many waving flags and holding up signs of support when the pope appeared at his apartment window to give his traditional Angelus prayer and a short sermon. "Thank you all for your affection," he told the crowd in response. Benedict closed his appearance by telling the crowd, "Let us always be close in prayer."
Under his handle @pontifex, Pope Benedict also tweeted Sunday, "In these momentous days, I ask you to pray for me and for the Church, trusting as always in divine Providence."
"It's saddens me, to see such a great man reduced by age and poor health," said Donatella Pasquino, 70, a restaurant owner who fought back tears as Sunday's blessing drew to a close. "We are lucky our lives have been touched by him. God bless him."
Todd Allen Andrews, 54, a business consultant from Toledo, said he came to Rome after hearing Benedict's plans to resign.
"The pope is God's representative on earth, but he is still human and he is limited by the same human frailties that touch everyone," he said.
Missy Andrews, 51, his wife, added: "We are great admirers of the Holy Father and we had been planning to come to Rome for some time. His resignation convinced us to come now."
Sunday's blessing happened just a day after the Vatican lashed out at the media, addressing for the first time reports that Pope Benedict XVI's resignation was linked to an emerging scandal involving gay priests and high-priced blackmail.
Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, who didn't speak in specific terms about the scandal Saturday, said, "It is deplorable that as we draw closer to the time of the beginning of the conclave ... that there be a widespread distribution of often unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories that cause serious damage to persons and institutions."
The original story, which first appeared in the Rome newspaper La Repubblica on Thursday, alleges that Benedict's resignation is linked to the discovery of a network of gay priests in the Vatican who were being blackmailed by people outside the Holy See. The story claims the pope's decision to step down dates to Dec. 17, after he first saw a nearly 300-page dossier compiled by three cardinals that has been dubbed "Vatileaks" by the Italian press.
The reports have failed to resonate with the pilgrims who have been coming to St. Peter's in recent days.
"There have always been people who will attack the church, but they will only be effective if we give importance to what they have to say," said Carmelo Benevento, 71, a retired machine operator.
Benedict has said he is stepping down because his failing health would soon limit his effectiveness in his job. Vatican officials have said the decision has been in the works for nearly a year.
Bertone and other Vatican officials have also alleged that the unnamed sources behind the La Repubblica exposé may have been trying to influence the electors in the upcoming conclave by making accusations of sex, blackmail and homosexuality within the Vatican a central issue.
"It's an extraordinary accusation to make," said Alistair Sear, a church historian. "It's one thing to say an allegation is untrue, and quite another to say it was made in order to influence who will become the next pope."