Just two months after Pope Benedict’s fanfare about communicating to the modern world with the new-fangled Twitter, he chose to announce he was quitting in Latin before a council of hoary cardinals.
As the rain lashed down on St Peter’s Square from an equally grey sky, the faithful and the curious were both confused about events – and the Pontiff’s motives, without knowing he had cited his failing physical capacity for the job.
Francesca Riga, 24, from Calabria in southern Italy, who was visiting Rome for a week, said she had heard the news of Ratzinger’s resignation only minutes earlier from other tourists. “I’m shocked. I don’t know what to say. I think probably he’s very ill. The Pope wouldn’t resign otherwise.”
In the early evening, a storm swept across the capital and lightening bolts lit up the heavens, causing the dwindling crowds in St Peter’s Square to scatter. Among them were Alex and Maria Ruiz, a middle-aged couple from Mexico. “We are very sad,” said Mr Ruiz, “but I think the Pope must have a good reason to leave. This is not normal. But we must respect his decision.”
Filippo, a 48-year-old taxi driver speaking on the Vatican side of the Tiber, was also shocked. “I’m still not sure what to say. I’m still stunned.” But he felt sure history would be kind to Pope Benedict. “He wasn’t a showman like John Paul II. But I liked the fact that he was reserved; a modest man, and very traditional. He wasn’t very flamboyant, but that’s probably because he was German,” he said.
He added the Pope Benedict hadn’t had the best of luck. But it looks like the lame-duck Pontiff will get out alive. Exactly a year ago Italian papers were reporting claims of a plot to assassinate him.
Elsewhere on Rome’s streets other Italians expressed satisfaction that Benedict was stepping down, even if they too had doubts about his reasons.
Eva Benelli 56-year-old housewife said: “It’s was a surprise. But I’m asking myself, why has he resigned now. The other Popes carried on no matter how old or infirm they were. But I’m not sad he’s going. He was so far away from ordinary Italians.
“I’m not a practising Catholic, but let’s hope we can have a more progressive Pope, who pushes for better civil rights – for gays and divorced people. The situation in Italy is already quite shameful.”
Another Roman, Romeo Bassoli, 58, also thought the resignation of Benedict offered the church to an opportunity to choose a more liberal leader. “Or at least, I really hope that’s the case,” he said.
But despite being one of the least-loved Pope’s since Cesare Borgia, the great and the good lined up to pay their respects to the 85-year-old Pontiff.
Italy’s head of state President Giorgio Napolitano said: “The Pope has shown great, courage, generosity and in my opinion great respect with this gesture.” He added that the papacy was an “extraordinarily challenging weight to carry on one’s shoulders”.
Outgoing premier Mario Monti told journalists in Milan: “I was very moved by this news.” He said he had had no idea the Pope’s resignation was on the cards.
There were also respectful comments from his political and social opponents, including Giuliano Pisapia, the left-wing mayor of Milan, the city whose archbishop Angelo Scola has already emerged as the favourite to succeed Benedict next month.
Mr Pisapia angered senior church figures last year by announcing token civil partnerships for gay couples in Milan, in defiance of the Vatican's stance on same-sex relationships, was as usual graceful in his choice of words. “The decision of Pope Benedict to leave the Papacy in a few weeks has touched me. We must have maximum respect for his choice.”
Ezio Mauro, editor of big centre-left daily newspaper La Repubblica, said Benedict’s resignation was evidence that “modernity was breaking out in the corridors of the Vatican”.
The theme of deliberate change was adopted by the Pope’s more natural supporters, including Pierferdinando Casini, head of the strongly pious Union of Christian Democrats. “We are close to the Pope who has demonstrated with this gesture an authentic revolution,” he said.
Other catholic politicians joined the chorus saying that Pope Benedict would be remembered fondly, despite resigning. And there is a historical precedent. The hairshirt-wearing Celestine V, the last Pope to quit the job, some 600 years ago, was thought by some to have been depicted by Dante’s Divine Comedy as a soul sent to hell for his cowardice.
But shortly after in 1313, Celestine was declared a saint by his predecessor Pope Clement V. Filippo the taxi driver would have approved.