VATICAN CITY, Feb. 24, 2013— -- More than 100,000 pilgrims came to St. Peter's Square today to attend Pope Benedict XVI's last Sunday prayer and blessing. The crowd interrupted the pope several times with applause, but Benedict was business as usual.
Apparently he is not big on goodbyes.
This was the last time the world will see him in the window for his Sunday noon appointment with the faithful.
This time next week he'll be gone from the Vatican. The campaign to choose the new pope will be in full swing.
Choosing a New Pope
It's an electoral process like no other -- an absolute monarch elected in secret by princes who are appointed. The men in red, one of whom will end up wearing white.
It all takes place behind locked doors in the Sistine Chapel, the ultimate smoke filled room. The results are transmitted by smoke signal and quickly confirmed in Latin.
Palace intrigue is part of the history but this year the church is struggling with a different sort of challenge. This time the media is accused of meddling.
Pope Benedict's resignation - the first in modern history - makes the papacy seem almost presidential. And the reporters, gathered to witness this historic transition, are covering it almost as a New Hampshire primary.
We are introduce our viewers and readers to the possible candidates. We look for dark horses and examine whatever skeletons may be lurking in the closet. We also pay careful attention to the locals, the Italians who know the story best.
Conclave Politics Set Against Italy's Political Backdrop
That said, Italy has a political and media culture very different from the Granite State. Politics here can be opera, at times even opera buffa.
By sheer coincidence, Italy's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is up for election again this weekend.
This is the same Berlusconi accused of paying a young Moroccan dancer for sex at his so-called Bunga Bunga parties. He is a billionaire media mogul, with a spray tan and a brash manner.
If he loses today's election, he'll be back in court next month in his sex for hire trial. If he wins, he'll enjoy immunity as an elected official.
Against that backdrop, the Italian media is portraying the Vatican political culture as being equally depraved, drenched in ambition, wine and pheromones.
The Rome papers are full of reports that sound like the plot of Dan Brown novel, starting with a shadowy Vatican dossier supposedly detailing a gay sex and blackmail scandal involving the curia.
Rather unfairly for the church, a dossier does actually exist, the findings of an internal investigation the pope commissioned into the Vatileaks affair.
In that scandal, the popes butler leaked documents from the papal chambers and ended up as the first prisoner in years to wind up in the Vatican dungeons. (He has since been convicted and pardoned, provided with an apartment and a job with the church.)
So the document exists. But only the pope and his closest circle know what's in it.
Church officials cannot flatly deny the details being reported about its contents, because they have no idea. All they can say is the stories in the Italian press are "unverified, unverifiable, and even completely false."
At the same time, the church is dealing with a scandal that is verified, verifiable, and all too disturbingly true: the sex abuse scandal, in which several of the cardinals who will be voting on the new pope are implicated themselves, either as abusers or as managers who shielded pedophile priests from the law and covered up for their crimes.
Both stories are upstaging what is supposed to be a deeply spiritual process of choosing the next successor to St. Peter.
But, largely because of the sex abuse scandal, the church has lost some of that air of infallibility it could rely on in years past.
One more point worth making: the blind items in the Italian papers may well be planted by cardinals hoping to spin the process for or against a particular candidate.
The faithful, confronted for a decade now with the failures of priests and prelates, have the confidence to challenge church authority. How the church responds will be a test of grace under fire.
By stepping down, Pope Benedict may have opened the doors to all this. By suddenly announcing his resignation, he has upended tradition, making the papacy presidential.
One thing it's decidedly not is politics as usual.