VATICAN CITY—Pope Benedict XVI held the final audience of his pontificate before a sea of faithful in St. Peter's Square on Wednesday, a farewell that he said wouldn't mark the end of his life in public.
Addressing the crowd, the pope said he faced a "difficult and trying" decision in relinquishing leadership of Roman Catholicism's more than one billion faithful, a step he will take Thursday evening.
Although he plans to retire to a life of study and prayer, the pontiff told the crowd on Wednesday that there was no going back to his prepapal life, noting that his election eight years ago marked the end of "any privacy."
"There is no returning to private life. My decision to forgo the exercise of active ministry does not revoke this. I do not return to private life," Pope Benedict said, addressing the square, which was thronged with banners from around the world.
"I do not abandon the cross, but remain in a new way near to the Crucified Lord," he said.
The pope's resignation, which was announced two weeks ago, is an event that hasn't occurred in six centuries and is one that shocked the rank-and-file faithful. The Holy See has been putting the finishing touches on the protocols the church will use to address the future pope emeritus, as he will be called, as well as the vestments he will wear.
On the cobblestones around St. Peter's, the past week has played out as a series of final bows and last acts. On Sunday, the pope spoke from the window of the papal apartments for the last time, and on Wednesday, he mounted the ivory-painted popemobile for a final ride as its namesake passenger, gliding through a thicket of flags and chants of "Viva, il Papa!"
In his address, the pope reflected on his election and on the tumultuous years that came in its wake.
Over the course of his papacy, the pope garnered praise for his writings and drew large crowds during trips abroad. Controversy, however, loomed over his administration, including the spread of the sexual-abuse crisis across the world and bouts of infighting within Vatican ranks. That tumult has drawn calls from within Vatican walls and beyond for the election of a successor capable of reining in the church's sprawling ranks.
"I have felt like St. Peter with the Apostles in the boat on the Sea of Galilee: the Lord has given us many days of sunshine and gentle breeze, days in which the catch has been abundant," the pope said.
"There have [also] been times when the seas were rough and the wind against us—as in the whole history of the church it has ever been—and the Lord seemed to sleep," he added. The remark referenced a gospel passage in which Jesus Christ sleeps amid a storm at sea and then awakes to calm the tempest.
The turnout in St. Peter's Square—numbering in the tens of thousands—was higher Wednesday than in many of the pope's public audiences in recent years.
However, the piazza's oval contours didn't brim with faithful the way it did in the early days of his pontificate, following the death of his predecessor, John Paul II.
"We have come just for this occasion to say goodbye to this pope, because he worked a lot and was very patient," said Carmen Marsal Moyano, 54, who had traveled to Rome from Madrid with her husband. The pope, she said, "should have been recognized instead of criticized."
Rev. Sean Kilcawley, a 38-year-old priest from Lincoln, Neb., said the pope would be remembered for his teachings on subjects like the nature of love, which he said were sometimes overshadowed by controversies surrounding his papacy.
"Whenever things are reported about the church, it's about the problems. We focus on this and forget the Lord is calling us through these problems to a deeper relationship," Father Kilcawley said, looking on as the pontiff greeted pilgrims in the square.
Once Pope Benedict resigns on Thursday, he will be whisked by helicopter to Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence. He will return to Vatican City once the renovations are complete on his new residence: a former convent.
"I have taken this step in full awareness of its severity and also its novelty, but with a deep peace of mind," the pope said.