The Pope has given an emotional last general audience before stepping down as pontiff, during which he spoke of “difficult moments”.
Benedict XVI told the 150,000-strong crowd in St Peter’s Square in the Vatican City, the papal enclave in Rome, that he had been aware of the “gravity” of his decision to step down, but it was for the good of the Church.
The Pope stunned the Roman Catholic Church when he announced on February 11 he no longer had the mental or physical strength to carry on in the role.
He will officially stand aside on Thursday evening, the first pope to do so in 600 years.
As he arrived in the square, Benedict greeted pilgrims and waved to the tens of thousands of people who had gathered to bid him farewell.
He was driven around in an open-sided vehicle, surrounded by bodyguards. At one point he stopped to kiss a baby who had been handed up to him by his secretary.
The crowd fell silent as he started to speak.
The Pope began by saying he would keep the faithful in his prayers and has “great trust” in the future of the Church.
“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.
He said his papacy had faced joy, but also had undergone “difficult moments”. He said that during his time as leader of the 1.2 billion Roman Catholics around the world, he had negotiated “turbulent seas”.
Drawing on a Biblical analogy, he said: “The Lord gave us days of sun and of light breeze, days in which the fishing was good. There were also moments when there were stormy waters and headwinds.
“But I always knew that God was in that boat and I always knew that the boat of the Church is not mine, is not ours, but is his and he will not let it sink.”
Pope Benedict said he was aware of the “gravity and novelty” of his decision to resign and would accompany the Church in prayer even after his resignation.
He told the crowd he was not “coming down from the Cross”, but would remain in the service of the Church through prayer.
He asked the faithful to pray for the cardinals as they faced a weighty task choosing his successor and for whoever they chose.
After he had finished speaking, the crowd gave a rousing round of applause that lasted nearly a minute.
He went on to say a few extra words in other languages, one of which was English.
Tens of thousands of people, some toting banners saying “Thank you!” had earlier began filling St Peter’s Square in preparation for his appearance.
Many of the cardinals who will choose the next Pope were among those listening.
Later it was revealed that the Pope had expressed his gratitude for the welcome he received during his visit to Britain in 2010 and for the prayers of British Catholics since he decided to step down.
A letter written on his behalf by Vatican official Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Becciu thanked his UK-based followers.
On Thursday morning, he will bid farewell to his cardinals who will begin a series of meetings to determine his successor.
At precisely 8pm (Rome time) the villa gates at Castel Gandolfo will close and the Swiss Guard will withdraw – a symbol that Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy is over.
Once he completes his resignation, the Pope will leave the Vatican and fly by helicopter to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome, until renovations have been completed on a monastery inside the Vatican walls.
Benedict will then be known as Emeritus Pope and wear a simple white cassock and brown shoes rather than his trademark red loafers.
The Pope will live out the rest of his days in the new monastery in prayer and meditation.
A total of 115 “cardinal electors” are scheduled to take part after one said he was too sick and British cardinal Keith O’Brien said he would not be taking part after allegations of inappropriate behaviour regarding four priests emerged at the weekend.
The Pope named the Archbishop of Glasgow as temporary successor to Cardinal O’Brien in one of his last acts as head of the Catholic Church.
Philip Tartaglia will govern the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh until a permanent successor is appointed, but will not be able to attend the conclave.
The date for the conclave – when eligible cardinals vote in secret in the Sistine Chapel – has yet to be announced, but must take place within 20 days of the Pope’s last day.
Another of the Pope’s last acts was to announce that the Turin Shroud will be put on display again for one day on March 30. It has only been shown five times in the last 100 years.