ROME — The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI marks a turning point for the 1.2 billion-member global Roman Catholic Church. But if history is any guide, the turn will likely be gradual.
Hundreds of the faithful stood reverently in front of large television screens on St. Peter's Square on a chilly evening, to be close by as Pope Benedict led his final scheduled mass on Ash Wednesday. The pope thanked all those who had helped him during his eight-year papacy, and asked them to pray for him.
The retirement of the 85-year-old pontiff opens the way for church leaders to move toward reforms that many of the faithful would like to see, on issues like the pedophilia scandal, birth control, tolerance for homosexuals and the role of women. That will largely be up to his successor, who may have been among the dozens of cardinals who attended Wednesday's mass.
But veteran reporter Sean-Patrick Lovett of Vatican Radio warns against expecting any dramatic changes.
"The Catholic Church is not about change, it's not a democracy," Lovett said. "It's about continuity, and doctrine is very unlikely to change no matter who becomes pope."
One high priority for any new pope will have to be the scandal over sexual abuse by priests. But the current pope's official apology and new guidelines are about as much as can be done, said Lovett.
"I'm sure the next pope will continue to meet with victims, will continue to make sure that these policies are set in place and ensure that none of this ever happens again," he said.
Still, some people think the new pope will have to do more, including Vatican correspondent Alessandro Speciale of the Religion News Service.
"He will have to tackle the sex abuse crisis head on, and he will have to do it pro-actively, before the crisis erupts," he said.
Preventing further abuse is particularly important for the church's main growth areas, Africa and Latin America, he said. Some observers believe the next pope may come from one of those areas, but Speciale said even that would not necessarily signal major policy changes.
"The symbolic value of an African pope would be unimaginable, but how different in terms of policies and approach, that would depend on who exactly this pope is," he said.
People visiting the Vatican, in the days after the first papal resignation in nearly 600 years, were not expecting big policy changes, but were open to the idea of a southern hemisphere pope.
"It doesn't matter where you're from. It's all about your faith and your commitment to the job," said one visitor.
"I think it will open the eyes of the people, particularly in the Western world, the developed world, into what's going on in the countries of the Third World," said another.
It is a rare moment for Catholics to be able to say farewell to a pope, and to contemplate the future, without the sadness of a pope's death. It will also be rare for a new pope, whatever he wants to do, to feel his predecessor's presence quite so strongly.