English couple describe special 'aura' of ailing Pope

Pope Benedict XVI appeared frail and was clearly ailing but still gave off a special aura during one of his last public appearances before his shock retirement announcement, witnesses said Monday.

English couple Hugh and Hilary Stafford Northcote were among 4,000 knights, dames and companions of the Order of Malta who were blessed by the Holy Father on Saturday in a ceremony to mark the 900th anniversary of the charitable body that has its roots in the medieval crusades.

"It is quite extraordinary to hear the news today but I must say I'm not at all surprised," Hilary Stafford Northcote told AFP.

"He went right past me on Saturday, so close I could have touched him and he did look terribly frail.

"As he came past me, he was looking to the left but he suddenly turned to the right and he caught my eye. There was a split second when he was looking right at me.

"I must say I thought 'gosh' he's not very long for this world. But he has got such an aura of holiness. You feel he is a deeply holy man.

"He did look very tired but he has still got the most perceptive eyes. He really looks as if he has an impressive depth of understanding. I think he will be greatly missed."

The 85-year-old pontiff spent the best part of an hour in St Peter's for the ceremony.

He used a mini Pope-mobile to move, seated, among the congregation at the beginning and end of the ceremony, clinging on to a brass rail with one hand while raising the other in blessing.

During the ceremony he read out the Bull Pie Postulatio Voluntatis that was issued by his predecessor Pope Paschal II in 1113 and gave the order the protection of the Church and its unique sovereign status.

"He read out the address with quite a strong voice," said Hugh Stafford Northcote, the retired headmaster of St Bede's Preparatory school in Staffordshire. "It's terribly long but he didn't seem to mind at all and everyone cheered and clapped him.

"There were some children and nurses who were presented to him and he spoke to them all.

"He struck me as a very nice man. He gave out this aura and warmth, you only had to look at him and you thought 'wow'."

Despite his praise for Benedict, Mr Stafford Northcote admitted to having been a little surprised by Monday's announcement.

"I was paying some cheques in at the bank and the alert flashed up and I thought 'God I only saw him on Saturday.'

"Then my daughter Azra phoned up and said 'What did Daddy say to him?"

"I always thought retirement for the Pope was like divorce -- you don't do it. You go on until you've dropped."