VATICAN CITY — In front of rapt crowds, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of moments of joy and struggle Wednesday during his final public address from a stage set up in St. Peter's Square.
Dressed all in white and looking serene, the pope used his last general audience to call for a renewal of faith and speak of his own spiritual journey through eight years as leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
As he finished, cheers erupted from the tens of thousands gathered in the square -- acknowledged by Benedict with an open-armed embrace.
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 starting Thursday.
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.
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.
He spoke first in Italian, also gave greetings in French, German and English, among other languages, reflecting the Church's global reach.
Benedict, who stunned the world's Catholics when he announced his resignation just over two weeks ago, will leave office at 8 p.m. local time Thursday.