Pope Benedict's shock resignation has robbed Italians of the one element of certainty in a time of deep doubt, with the country beset by graft scandals and heading for an election that will not bring the radical change so many crave.
The pontiff has long been the one stable element for Roman Catholic Italians in a modern state that has become a byword for political instability and flawed politicians.
All that changed a week ago when Benedict announced he would be the first pontiff in 700 years to resign, causing alarm and despondency among many faithful in a country whose history has been shaped by the presence of the headquarters of the Church for 2,000 years.
"We are in a moment of social, ideological and cultural crisis and in a moment like that it is completely wrong for him to leave," said Emanuele Vitale, 22, a Sicilian student who joined around 100,000 people packed into St Peter's Square on Sunday for one of Benedict's last appearances before his resignation on Feb. 28.
Another person in the square, pensioner Antonio Mingrone, 68, said: "It is unsettling. At a time when there are all these political conflicts and an economic crisis, it is one more thing weighing on our minds."
Outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti, himself a devout Catholic, referred to the "disorientation" of Italians over the pope's decision. "It seems like an epoch is changing on both sides of the Tiber and we feel robbed of points of reference."
Massimo Franco, a leading Italian political commentator and author of several books on the Vatican, told Reuters: "The resignation adds instability to instability. The Church which was a source of stability is now a major source of instability.
"Today the Vatican is a sort of mirror of Italy," Franco said. "Before it was the opposite. Now there is a chaotic Italy and chaotic Vatican."
Italians will vote next Sunday and Monday in an election whose outcome is still unpredictable at a time when the country desperately needs firm and decisive government to address a major recession, stagnant growth and soaring unemployment.
DISGUST WITH POLITICIANS
Poll after poll over the last year has shown Italians disgusted with a political class which has clung to its own privileges as the euro zone's third biggest but chronically uncompetitive economy descended deeper into crisis.
Instead they look like getting the opposite result from the one they want. The main beneficiary is likely to be Genoese comic Beppe