Pope Benedict XVI gave his pontificate’s final Sunday blessing from his studio window to the cheers of tens of thousands of people packing St. Peter’s Square, but sought to reassure the faithful that he wasn’t abandoning the church by retiring to spend his final years in prayer.

The pontiff is stepping down on Thursday evening, the first Pope to do so in 600 years, after saying he no longer has the mental or physical strength to lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

Clear, strong voice

But while he has lately looked tired and frail, the crowd filling the cobblestone square seemed to energise him, and he spoke in a clear, strong voice, repeatedly thanking the faithful for their closeness and affection as they interrupted him, again and again, with applause and cheers. Police estimated some 100,000 people turned out.

The Pope told the crowd that God is calling him to dedicate himself “even more to prayer and meditation”, which he will do in a secluded monastery being renovated for him on the grounds behind Vatican City’s ancient walls.

“But this doesn’t mean abandoning the church”, he said, as many in the crowd looked sad at his departure from regular view.

“On the contrary, if God asks me, this is because I can continue to serve it [the church] with the same dedication and the same love which I have tried to do so until now, but in a way more suitable to my age and to my strength.”

The phrase “tried to” was the Pope’s adlibbed addition to his prepared text.

The Pope (85) has one more public appearance, a Wednesday general audience in St. Peter’s Square.

He smiled at the crowd after an aide parted the white curtain at his window, telling the people, “thank you for your affection.”

“We thank God for the sun he has given us,” said the Pope, sounding cheerful.

As cheers continued in the crowd, the pontiff simply turned away from the window and stepped back down into apartment, which he will leave on Thursday, taking a helicopter to the Vatican summer residence in the hills outside Rome while he waits for the monastery to be ready.

A child in the crowd held up a sign on a yellow placard, written in Italian, “You are not alone, I’m with you.”

Other admirers held homemade signs, saying “Grazie.”

No date has yet been set for the start of the conclave of cardinals, who will vote in secret to elect Benedict’s successor.

Flags in the crowd represented many nations, with a large number from Brazil.

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