VATICAN CITY // Pope Benedict bid an emotional farewell at his last general audience yesterday, saying he understood the gravity of his decision to become the first pontiff to resign in 600 years but that he had done it for the good of the Roman Catholic Church.
Addressing an estimated 150,000 people in St Peter's Square the day before he steps down, Pope Benedict said his crisis-hit papacy had included moments of joy but also difficulty when, "It seemed like the Lord was sleeping".
Sitting on an ivory coloured throne on the steps of St Peter's Basilica and frequently interrupted by applause from the crowd, the pontiff said: "There were moments when the waters were choppy and there were headwinds."
When he finished his speech the crowd, including many red-hatted cardinals, stood up to clap.
Pope Benedict will abdicate tonight and then cardinals begin consultations ahead of a conclave to choose his successor.
He said he had great faith in the future of a troubled Church, adding: "I took this step in the full knowledge of its gravity and rarity but with a profound serenity of spirit." Loving the Church meant "having the courage to take difficult and anguished choices, always having in mind the good of the church and not oneself", he said.
The pope said he is too old and weak to continue leading a Church beset by crises over child abuse by priests and a leak of confidential Vatican documents showing corruption and rivalry among Vatican officials.
A large crowd had flowed into the sprawling square since early morning for the midweek audience which is normally held indoors but was moved outside to accommodate faithful wanting their last glimpse of the pope.
Many in the crowd, which streamed into the square across the Tiber River and along nearby streets, held up banners thanking the pope and wishing him well. "We are all on your side," one banner said.