Pope Benedict XVI expressed faith and gratitude in his final public address to huge crowds gathered in St. Peter's Square on Wednesday before he steps down and retreats into seclusion.
Dressed all in white, he took a seat on a stage set up in front of St. Peter's Basilica after making a final lap in his Popemobile around the square.
His final words were greeted by a huge cheer from the sea of people amassed to say farewell. As well as calling for a renewal of faith, he used his last general audience to discuss his experience as pontiff and his almost unprecedented decision to abdicate the role. Benedict recounted how when he was asked to be pope eight years ago, he had prayed for God's guidance. "And the Lord has really driven, I was close, I could feel his presence every day," he said.
"It was a part of the journey of the Church that has had moments of joy and light, but also moments that were not easy." The Church is like a boat that has passed through stormy seas, but God did "not let her sink," he said. He thanked the cardinals, the clergy in Rome, Vatican officials and priests worldwide, as well as their congregations, saying "the heart of a pope extends to the whole world."
He had taken the step of resignation well aware of its seriousness and novelty, but also "with a deep peace of mind," he said. "In recent months, I felt that my strength had decreased, and I asked God earnestly in prayer to enlighten me with his light to make me take the right decision not for my sake, but for the good of the Church," he said."Loving the Church also means having the courage to make tough choices, suffering, having always before the good of the Church and not themselves."
Benedict gave an insight into the life of the pontiff, describing it as without any kind of privacy, with his time devoted entirely to the Church -- perhaps particularly difficult for a man known for his love of scholarship. His life in retirement will be "simply a return to the private place. My decision is to forgo the exercise of active ministry, not revoke it. In order to return to private life, not to a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences and so on," he said. Vatican officials said 50,000 tickets had been handed out for Benedict's last general audience -- but authorities said they had prepared for as many as 200,000 people to show up to witness the historic moment in person.