By Eric J. Lyman, USA TODAY
ROME -- More than 100,000 people gathered in St. Peter's Square on Wednesday to cheer as Pope Benedict XVI gave his final general audience before making history by being the first pope to resign office since the Middle Ages.
Addressing the crowd where many toted banners saying "Grazie!" ("Thank you!") the pope said, "I'd like to thank everybody for the help I have received." He said that he has experienced both joyful and difficult moments as pope.
Benedict moved through the crowds of the square in an open-sided car and stopped to kiss and bless half a dozen children handed to him by his secretary. Cardinals, some tearful, sat in solemn attendance.
Vatican press officials said that 50,000 tickets had been issued for the audience, with at least that many more estimated to be gathered in the standing-room-only part of the square. It was among the largest audiences in St. Peter's Square of Benedict's papacy.
Benedict has been pope for eight years and will officially step down Thursday. He cited his health and age as his reason for departing.
Whoever succeeds him, Benedict said Wednesday, "will no longer have any privacy. He will belong forever and totally to everyone and to all the church."
He added that will remain true for him even after his abdication, which will take place barely 30 hours after his remarks Wednesday: "I am not abandoning the cross; I remain close to the crucified Lord in a new way," he said.
The faithful who were part of an overflow crowd in St. Peter's reflected a mix of sympathy for the plight of the 85-year-old pontiff's decision to step down and frustration with media reports over mismanagement and scandal in the Vatican.
"The Holy Father is a good man, a holy man, but perhaps his age held him back from keeping tight enough control on what has been going on," said Pascal Venturi, 71, a retired Italian police officer now living in Boston. "My religious faith is strong and I returned (to Rome) in part to say goodbye to the pope. But I am very frustrated by the lack of control over what takes place in the Vatican."
This week, Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien said he would not attend the conclave that will select the next pope after he denied allegations of "inappropriate behavior" with priests in the 1980s.
Benedict's former butler, Paolo Gabriele, was convicted of stealing documents from the Vatican, and the Vatican Bank is embroiled in charges that it was used by criminals to lander money.
"I know he doesn't take the decision (to resign) lightly, and I pray for him and his mission," said Italo Batisti, 56, a church maintenance worker from Rome. "But I also don't understand how all these things happened. The church should be a place for prayer and reflection, not for denying allegations."
Benedict's address Wednesday was unusually personal, in contrast with the often scholarly discourses on issues of faith or international affairs that have generally characterize Benedict's Wednesday audiences.
He said he had "serene trust in God's will" in making the decision to leave not for his own good but for the good of the church, and he thanked the faithful for understanding his decision to resign.
Although he was known during his papacy as a shy scholar, Benedict appeared warmed by the massive crowds, kissing and blessing children on his final lap around the square, while adults cheered and cardinals wept.
"My heart is open to the world," the pope said. "I will continue to accompany the Church with my prayers.
"I am asking each of you to pray for me," he said.
The audience was the last time Benedict will officially address the public as pope. But observers may be able to catch a glimpse of him late Thursday afternoon as he travels by helicopter to Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome, for several weeks of reflection before returning to the Vatican, where he is expected to live a cloistered life of prayer, writing, reading and meditation.
The Vatican announced Tuesday that after leaving the papacy he will retain the name Benedict and will be referred to as "Roman pontiff emeritus." He will dress far more simply than he did as pope, using a plain white cassock, and he will give up the famous red shoes of the papacy, which the Vatican says, symbolize the blood of the martyrs. Benedict will wear brown shoes instead
Once a new pope is elected, and Benedict returns to live within Vatican walls in retirement, it raises questions about having a reigning and a retired pope living side-by-side. But the Vatican says it foresees no problems and Benedict has said he will pray and be "hidden to the world."
Pope Benedict XVI officially steps down Thursday at 8 p.m. local time. The date for the conclave, the process by which the next pope will be selected, has not yet been announced.
Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard in London