TODAY   |  February 17, 2013

Pope gives Sunday blessing as church’s future unfolds

Pope Benedict delivered a weekly prayer from his balcony just as he has for nearly eight years, but the crowd on Sunday was worthy of a rock star, with thousands of supporters coming out to hear him speak. NBC’s Anne Thompson reports.

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>>> crowds are gathering in st. pete terse square for pope benedict xvi 's first sunday blessing since announcing his retirement. an ann thompson is there with the latest.

>> reporter: good morning, erica. it was a jam-packed st. peter's square. more than 50,000 people showed up to hear the pope. double the size of the crowd of last week. he spoke in six languages thanking the crowd for their prayers and support, adding in his native german, that these were difficult days. the crowd in turn applauded with respect and affection. in rome , where there is no shortage of must-see attractions, suddenly elderly pope benedict is number one on everyone's list. today, he delivered his weekly prayer from his balcony just as he has for eight years. but this crowd was worthy of a rock star . he ended his last public mass on ash wednesday turned the church-goers into paparazzi. the solemn season of lint is now a celebration of the 85-year-old pontiff. the hottest ticket in town, benedict's final audience on february 27th , date before he steps down. 35,000 people have already requested free tickets athe vatican .

>> this extraordinary step creates an extraordinary problem. the church will have two living popes. author george weigel is an nbc news vatican analyst. how are they going to operate with two popes?

>> technically, there are not two poeps. he ceases to be pope at 8:00 p.m . february 28th . there has never been a bishop of rome emeritus for 1700 years. he will retire into the deep background and not be seen in public.

>> reporter: in meeting with rome , pope benedict said once he stepped down, he would remain hidden from the world. eventually, he will live in this renovated monestary in vatican city , physically close to the new pope but no one expects him to be inclusive.

>> the new pope may come in and seek his advice. the pope going to the mon stare is the pope going to the monestary.

>> reporter: he says the pope has surprised many as a conservative and strict theologian, he was labeled as god's rottweiler e showed a gentle pastoral side. never more so than meeting privately with sex abuse victims during his 2008 trip to the u.s. he saved his biggest surprise for last says john thavis, who covered the vatican for 30 years.

>> he will be remembered as the pope who resigned without a doubt. i think it may be his finest legacy to the church, his greatest gift to the church. really, he has brought the papacy into the modern age .

>> reporter: currently, the conclave to choose the successor to benedict xvi is scheduled to begin somewhere between march 15th and march 20th . the vatican says there is talk about moving up ta date. all the cardinals that will vote are coming to rome on february 28th . we will watch this week to see if we get a new date for the conclave. erica?

>> ann, thank you.