VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI bid an emotional farewell Wednesday on the eve of his retirement, recalling moments of "joy and light" during his papacy, but also times of difficulty when "it seemed like the Lord was sleeping."
Some 150,000 people, many waving banners proclaiming "Grazie!" flooded St. Peter's Square, eager to bear witness to the final hours of a papacy that will go down in history as the first in 600 years to end in resignation rather than death.
Benedict basked in the emotional send-off, taking a long victory lap around the square in an open-sided car, and stopping to kiss and bless half a dozen babies. Seventy cardinals, some tearful, sat in solemn attendance - and gave him a standing ovation at the end of his speech.
Pope Benedict XVI greets the Catholic masses in St. Peter's Square, Wednesday, for the last time before retiring.
Benedict then made a quick exit, forgoing the meet-and-greet session that typically follows his weekly general audience, as if to not prolong the goodbye.
Given the weight of the moment, Benedict also replaced his usual Wednesday catechism lesson with a heartfelt final address, explaining once again why he was retiring and assuring his flock of 1.2 billion that he was not abandoning them.
"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 pontiff has no privacy - neither as pope, nor in his future role as emeritus pope: "He belongs always and forever to everyone, to the whole church."
During his eight years as pope, Benedict said he had 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."
The pope's tenure has been beset by the clerical sex abuse scandal, discord over everything from priestly celibacy to women's ordination, and most recently the betrayal by his own butler, who stole his private papers and leaked them to a journalist.
Under a bright sun and blue skies, the square was overflowing with pilgrims and curiosity-seekers. Those who couldn't get in watched on giant TV screens set up along the main boulevard leading to the square. About 50,000 tickets were requested, and in the end, the Vatican estimated that 150,000 people flocked to the farewell.