Pope Benedict XVI has said he is standing down for “the good of the church”, as he made his first public appearance since his shock announcement that he is to tender the first papal resignation since the Middle Ages.

Amid the cheers and tears of the faithful who had turned out in force to witness his audience in the Vatican, the outgoing pontiff thanked them for their “love and prayer”.

“Keep praying for me, for the church and for the future pope,” he added, after a standing ovation from the thousands of people assembled in the audience hall.

“I did this in full freedom for the good of the church after praying for a long time and examining my conscience before God,” he said.

The Pope (85), who appeared strong, said he had experienced the kindness of worshippers “almost physically”. He will later hold the Ash Wednesday Mass in St Peter’s Basilica. It had been scheduled for a smaller venue on the Aventine hill, but the plans were changed in the aftermath of his announcement.

— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013