Tens of thousands pack St Peter's Square for Pope Benedict XVI's… (Tiziana Fabi / AFP/Getty…)
VATICAN CITY -- Before tens of thousands of people under clear blue skies, Pope Benedict XVI recalled a papacy full of both joy and difficulty as he held his final general audience Wednesday, the eve of his retirement as leader of the world's Roman Catholics.
Cheers filled St. Peter's Square as Benedict rode his special Popemobile amid the crowds who had started gathering early in the morning. National flags fluttered alongside banners bearing the simple word "Grazie," or "thanks."
It was one of the largest crowds to turn out for Benedict in the colonnaded piazza since he was elevated to the papacy nearly eight years ago. The 85-year-old pope, seated under a canopy on the steps of the grand basilica, responded in several languages to the greetings and tributes read to him from around the world.
PHOTOS: Pope Benedict XVI holds final general audience before retirement
He thanked the faithful for their support of his decision to bow to his failing health and become the first pontiff in 600 years to give up the post.
"To love the church means also to have the courage to take difficult, painful decisions, always keeping the good of the church in mind, not oneself," said Benedict, his voice slightly hoarse but unwavering.
"I have had moments of joy and light, but also moments that haven't been easy," he added. "I felt like St. Peter with the apostles in the boat on the Sea of Galilee. ... I always knew that the Lord was in that boat, and I always was aware that the boat of the Church was not mine, was not ours, but it belonged to Him."
Benedict vowed to continue serving God in his retirement to a renovated monastery in the Vatican Gardens, a stone's throw from the papal apartment he currently occupies.
"I no longer bear the power of office of government of the church but remain in the service of prayer," he said, adding that, as pope, he belonged to everyone and would continue to belong to everyone the rest of his life.
On the steps with the pope were about 70 cardinals, the "princes" of the church, more than 100 of whom will assemble in the coming weeks to select a new pope.
At the end of the nearly 90-minute audience, Benedict stood to sing the Lord's Prayer in Latin but looked frail as he delivered a blessing to those assembled. Some cried, "Long live the Pope!" as he climbed back in his motorized cart for a final turn around the square.
The adulation was respectful and even reverential, but without the electricity that often attended the public audiences of Pope John Paul II, Benedict's charismatic predecessor. John Paul's beatification ceremony in May 2011 drew a far larger gathering than the numbers who showed up Wednesday.
In many ways, Benedict's final address was in keeping with the rest of the papacy of a man who, though known to be engaging in private, seemed shy, aloof and even awkward, at times, in public.
Still, those in the piazza were grateful for a chance to see the pope one last time. The Vatican moved the general audience from its usual venue indoors to St. Peter's Square to accommodate the expected crowds. Officials said earlier that more than 50,000 tickets had been requested.
"We just decided when we got up today that this was our priority," said Ann McKay, 62, a Catholic from Scotland who arrived in Rome on Tuesday on a previously planned trip with her husband. "It is a historic occasion. I feel quite humbled by this."
She and others said they believed Benedict did the right thing in stepping down willingly.
"The Catholic Church does have to be more with the times. He's left it to someone younger to take it forward," McKay said.
"Oh, bless him," she murmured, as the Popemobile wheeled past, with Benedict waving from his perch.
The pope has just a few more items on his schedule, including a meeting with dignitaries from his native Bavaria in Germany, before he leaves the Vatican on Thursday for the papal summer retreat outside of Rome. At 8 p.m. local time Thursday, his papacy will officially be over.
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