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Marymount - International School Rome

At the Vatican, faithful hail 'a great pope'

Catholics and tourists visiting St Peter's Square on Saturday expressed sadness and admiration for former pope Benedict XVI, following news of his death aged 95.

"We are distraught... despite his critics, he was truly a great pope," said Davide Di Tommaso, 30, from the southern Italian region of Molise.

The square in front of St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican was busy with holiday visitors when big screens used to broadcast services flashed up an unusual message.

In white letters on a black background, they announced simply that the basilica and the square will close at 12:30 pm (1130 GMT), without giving further details.

Many went to check their phones, seeing the news that the German pope emeritus, who stepped down in February 2013, had died.

"He was a fighting pope who deeply loved the Church," said Charbel Youssef, a 31-year-old Frenchman visiting on a pilgrimage.

He said he and his fellow pilgrims prayed on hearing the news.

"He truly fulfilled his role as a shepherd on Earth. He took it very seriously, and that was a good thing for us," he said. 

- 'Great example' -

Benedict's body will be displayed from Monday morning in St Peter's Basilica, to allow the faithful to pay their respects.

The funeral will take place in St Peter's Square on Thursday morning, overseen by Pope Francis, the Vatican said.

The pope emeritus, whose birth name was Joseph Ratzinger, had been living a quiet life in a former convent inside the Vatican grounds since becoming the first pope to resign in six centuries.

He had cited his declining physical and mental health in his shock decision to stand down as head of the worldwide Catholic Church.

Benedict was a brilliant theologian but his papacy was beset by Vatican in-fighting and a scandal over clerical sexual abuse of children that rocked the Catholic Church the world over, in which he was criticised for a lack of leadership.

Michael Dauphinee, a tourist visiting from the United States, hailed Benedict as a "great example".

"Finding the courage to say, I'm not what my church needs right now -- I think that's a pretty impressive decision to make," said Dauphinee.

"I'm a Protestant, but as a leader in general, he sets a great example of knowing your own limitations."

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© AFP/Wante in Rome

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Marymount - International School Rome
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Marymount - International School Rome
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