Updated Wednesday, February 27, 2013 at 06:35 AM
Pope Benedict XVI basked in an emotional sendoff Wednesday at his final general audience in St. Peter's Square, recalling moments of "joy and light" during his papacy but also times of great difficulty. He also thanked his flock for respecting his decision to retire.
Tens of thousands of people toting banners saying "Grazie!" - "Thank you" - jammed the piazza in Rome to bid Benedict farewell and join the appointment he has kept each week for eight years to teach the world about the Catholic faith.
Benedict clearly enjoyed the crowds, taking a long victory lap around the square in an open-sided car and stopping to kiss and bless half a dozen children handed to him by his secretary.
In keeping with the historic moment, Benedict changed course and didn't produce his typical professorial Wednesday catechism lesson. Rather, he made his final public appearance in St. Peter's a personal one, explaining once again why he was becoming the first pope in 600 years to resign and urging the faithful to pray for his successor.
"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," Benedict said to thundering applause.
He recalled that when he was elected pope on April 19, 2005, he questioned if God truly wanted it. "'It's a great burden that you've placed on my shoulders,'" he recalled telling God.
During eight years, he said "I have had moments of joy and light, but also moments that haven't been easy ... moments of turbulent seas and rough winds."
But he said he never felt alone and thanked his cardinals and colleagues for their guidance and for "understanding and respecting this important decision."
Under a bright sun and blue skies, the square was overflowing with pilgrims and curiosity-seekers. Those who couldn't get in picked spots along the main boulevard leading to the square to watch the event on giant TV screens. Some 50,000 tickets were requested for Benedict's final master class, but Italian media estimated the number of people actually attending could be double that.
"It's difficult - the emotion is so big," said Jan Marie, a 53-year-old Roman in his first years as a seminarian. "We came to support the pope's decision."
With chants of "Benedetto!" erupting every so often, the mood was far more buoyant than during the pope's final Sunday blessing. It recalled the jubilant turnouts that often accompanied him at World Youth Days and events involving his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.
Benedict has said he decided to retire after realizing that, at 85, he simply didn't have the "strength of mind or body" to carry on. He will meet Thursday morning with cardinals for a final time, then fly by helicopter to the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo south of Rome.
There, at 8 p.m., the doors of the palazzo will close and the Swiss Guards in attendance will go off duty, their service protecting the head of the Catholic Church over - for now.
Many of the cardinals who will choose Benedict's successor were in St. Peter's Square for his final audience. Those included retired Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, the object of a grass-roots campaign in the U.S. to persuade him to recuse himself for having covered up for sexually abusive priests. Mahony has said he will be among the 115 cardinals voting on who the next pope should be.
Vatican officials say cardinals will begin meeting Monday to decide when to set the date for the conclave to elect the next pope.
But the rank-and-file faithful in the crowd Wednesday weren't so concerned with the future; they wanted to savor the final moments with the pope they have known for eight years.
"I came to thank him for the testimony that he has given the church," said Maria Cristina Chiarini, a 52-year-old homemaker who traveled by train early Wednesday from Lugo in central Italy with some 60 members of her parish. "There's nostalgia, human nostalgia, but also comfort, because as a Christian we have hope. The Lord won't leave us without a guide."
Follow Nicole Winfield at http://www.twitter.com/nwinfield
MICHAEL SOHN / AP
A worker climbs down scaffolding set up for video screens in front of the St. Peter's Basilica, ahead of Pope Benedict XVI's last general audience, scheduled for Wednesday, at the Vatican.