Pope Benedict XVI has recalled moments of “joy and light” during his papacy but also times of great difficulty in an emotional, final general audience in St. Peter’s Square before retiring.

The Pope thanked his cardinals, colleagues and ordinary faithful for their support and for respecting his decision to become the first pope in 600 years to resign. He said that “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.”

Tens of thousands of people toting banners saying “Grazie!” (thank you) jammed the piazza to bid the Pope farewell during his last audience the appointment he has kept each week to teach the world about the Catholic faith.

Pilgrims and curiosity-seekers picked spots along the main boulevard leading to the square to watch Wednesday’s event on giant TV screens. Some 50,000 tickets were requested for Pope Benedict’s final master class, but Italian media estimated the number of people actually attending could be double that.

“It’s difficult. The emotion is so big,” said Jan Marie, a 53-year-old Roman in his first years as a seminarian. “We came to support the Pope’s decision.”

With chants of “Benedetto” erupting every so often, the mood was far more buoyant than during the Pope’s final Sunday blessing and recalled the jubilant turnouts that often accompanied him at World Youth Days and events involving his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

Pope Benedict on Thursday will become the first Pope in 600 years to resign, a decision he said he took after realising that, at 85, he simply didn’t have the strength of mind or body to carry on. He will meet with cardinals on Thursday morning for a final time, then fly by helicopter to the Papal residence at Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome. There, at 8 p.m., the doors of the Palazzo will close and the Swiss Guards in attendance will go off duty, their service protecting the head of the Catholic Church over for now.

Many of the cardinals who will choose the Pope’s successor were in St. Peter’s Square for his final audience, including retired Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, object of a grass-roots campaign in the U.S. to persuade him to recuse himself for having covered up for sexually abusive priests. Cardinal Mahony has said he will vote.

Vatican officials say cardinals will begin meeting on Monday to decide when to set the date for the conclave to elect the next Pope.

But the rank and file in the crowd on Wednesday weren’t so concerned with the future; they wanted to savour the final moments with the Pope they have known for eight years.

“I came to thank him for the testimony that he has given the Church,” said Maria Cristina Chiarini, a 52-year-old homemaker who travelled by train early Wednesday from Lugo, near Ravenna, with some 60 members of her parish. “There’s nostalgia, human nostalgia, but also comfort, because as a Christian we have hope. The Lord won’t leave us without a guide.”

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