Pope Benedict XVI arrives in St. Peter's Square for his final general… (Franco Origlia / Getty Images )
VATICAN CITY — They packed St. Peter's Square when he was named the new pope, and they came again by the thousands to see him off.
On the eve of his retirement as head of the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI recalled the joy and burden of leadership Wednesday at a final general audience on which cheering devotees and a late-winter sun both smiled warmly. The eight years of his papacy, Benedict told the crowd, had been a grand journey, sometimes smooth, sometimes turbulent, but always steered by God.
"The Lord did not let us founder.... This has been a certainty that nothing can obscure," the pontiff said, abandoning his usual practice of preaching a homily in favor of an uncharacteristically personal last address. "And it's for this reason that today my heart is full of thanks to God, because he has not deprived the whole church, or me, of his consolation, his light, his love."
On Thursday evening, Benedict is set to go down in history as the first pope in 600 years to relinquish his office. He acknowledged again that his decision to step down because of failing health was a grave and novel one, but declared that he felt "a deep serenity in my soul."
"To love the church means also to have the courage to make difficult and painful choices, keeping sight of the good of the church and not ourselves," he said.
Some shouted, "Long live the pope!" as he spoke. Others held aloft banners with the word "Grazie," or "thanks" in Italian, which fluttered next to national flags belonging to pilgrims who converged on the imposing colonnaded piazza from all parts of the world.
It was clear that, for many in the crowd of more than 100,000, nothing in Benedict's papacy has become him quite like the leaving of it.
"It shows such humility to come down from a great level," said Nisha Antony, a nun from India. "Have you ever seen a politician give up a high seat?"
Julia G. Ferreras, a university professor from Spain, agreed.
"It proves he is a free man. He thinks this is what he should do, and he followed his conscience," she said. "He understands that he doesn't have the strength" to remain at the helm.
Benedict, 85, looked frail as he sat, robed in white, beneath a canopy on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica. His voice was hoarse but did not waver when he delivered his remarks, responded to tributes in various languages, sang the Lord's Prayer in Latin and gave a final blessing, lifting his hands above his slightly hunched frame.
"Oh, bless him," murmured Ann McKay of Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, as Benedict zipped around the square in his popemobile amid the cheering crowds.
McKay was in Rome on a previously planned visit with her husband and came to show her respect.
"It's not an easy time for the Catholic Church," she said, alluding to the sex abuse scandals that have severely undermined the church's moral authority. "The Catholic Church does have to be more with the times, to be sure. He's left it to someone younger to take it forward."
The adulation in the square was respectful and even reverential, but without the electricity that often attended the public audiences of the late Pope John Paul II, Benedict's charismatic predecessor. Still, those in the piazza were grateful for a chance to see the pope one last time, while Benedict had the benefit, almost unique among him and his predecessors, of knowing this was his final major appearance before the faithful.
He smiled and waved, looking more at ease among the throng than usual, perhaps out of a sense of relief. Though known to be engaging in private, the pope has often seemed shy, aloof and even awkward in public.
On the steps with the pope were about 70 cardinals in their distinctive red skullcaps, the "princes" of the church, more than 100 of whom will assemble in the coming weeks to select his successor.
Among them was Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, the target of a grass-roots campaign urging him to renounce his right to participate in the conclave to elect the next pope. Mahony, who has been strongly criticized for his role in the church's sexual abuse scandal, was reportedly asked by television crews about the campaign.
"God bless you," was his response.
Exactly when that conclave will begin is still unknown, and may be the subject of some debate among the cardinals when they gather Monday for the first of their meetings dealing with the end of Benedict's papacy and looking ahead to the next one.
This week, the pope amended the rules to allow the conclave to start sooner than the customary 15 to 20 days after the throne of St. Peter becomes vacant. In comments published Tuesday, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the head of the Italian conference of bishops, appeared to push for a conclave to be called "as soon as possible." But some of his peers, including prelates from New York and Chicago and one from Paris, have warned that the matter should not be rushed.