February 27, 2013 10:02:07 AM
VATICAN CITY -- Pope Benedict XVI basked in an emotional sendoff Wednesday from a massive crowd at his final general audience in St. Peter's Square, recalling moments of "joy and light" during his papacy but also times of difficulty when "it seemed like the Lord was sleeping."
An estimated 150,000 people, many toting banners saying "Grazie!" ("Thank you!"), jammed the piazza to bid Benedict farewell and hear his final speech as pontiff. In this appointment -- which he has kept each week for eight years to teach the world about the Catholic faith -- Benedict gave deep thanks to his flock for respecting his decision to retire.
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. A total of 70 cardinals, some tearful, sat in solemn attendance.
But Benedict made a quick exit, foregoing the typical meet-and-greet session that follows the audience; the Vatican has said there were simply too many people who would have wanted to say goodbye.
Given the historic moment, Benedict also 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 noted that a pope has no privacy: "He belongs always and forever to everyone, to the whole church." But the pope promised that in retirement he would not be returning to private life -- instead taking on a new experience of service to the church through prayer.
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 his eight years as pope, Benedict said, "I have had moments of joy and light, but also moments that haven't been easy ... moments of turbulent seas and rough winds, as has occurred in the history of the church when it seemed like the Lord was sleeping."
But he said he never felt alone, that God always guided him, and he thanked his cardinals and colleagues for their support 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. In the end, the Vatican estimated that 150,000 people flocked to the farewell.