Pope Benedict Holds Final Audience

Thousands of pilgrims packed into St. Peter

Pope Benedict XVI waves to the faithful as he arrives in St Peter's Square to hold his last general audience at the Vatican February 27, 2013. The weekly event which would normally be held in a vast auditorium in winter, but has been moved outdoors to St. Peter's Square so more people can attend. The pope has two days left before he takes the historic step of becoming the first pontiff in some six centuries to step down instead of ruling for life. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

Thousands of pilgrims packed into St. Peter's Square on Wednesday (February 27) to say goodbye to Pope Benedict at his last general audience.

An estimated 150,000 people from Italy and around the world gathered in Vatican's famous square on the bright, sunny day for the mid-week audience, which is normally held indoors but was moved outside to accommodate the mass number of pilgrims wanting to catch a last glimpse of the pope on the day before he steps down.

Many in the crowd, which streamed into the square across the Tiber River and along nearby streets, held up banners thanking the pope and wishing him well.

Many Catholics were stunned by Benedict's decision to resign and concerned about the impact it will have on a Church torn by divisions.

But most of those in the square were supportive and praised him, an increasingly frail figure in the last months of his papacy.

They listened to Benedict saying he understood the gravity of his decision to become the first pontiff to resign in 600 years, but that he had done it for the good of the Roman Catholic Church.

Addressing the huge crowd, Benedict said his crisis-hit papacy had included moments of joy but also difficulty.

When he finished his speech the crowd, including many red-hatted cardinals, stood to clap.

Benedict will abdicate on Thursday (February 28) night and then cardinals begin consultations ahead of a conclave to choose his successor.

After the audience one Italian pilgrim said of her experience: "It's a fabulous thing. It's very emotional. I will remember this until I die."

Another pilgrim speculated on who would succeed Benedict: "I think that it will be a Filipino, I dreamt this. I think it's possible. An African? I don't know, but not for the moment."

Vatican senior communications advisor Greg Burke said he was pleased with the pope's final audience.

"The atmosphere, I think the people are very excited. The pope wasn't too emotional. He never gets too emotional. I think what you see is what you get with the pope, and this was the essence of him, someone who is very humble, very simple, asking for prayers and telling people quite frankly, I'm not abandoning the Church, I'm just serving it in another way, I will still be standing by the cross," said Burke.

He also praised the pope for delivering a clear message.

"The pope talking about the storm on the lake, you know the boat being buffeted like this and Christ is sleeping, you know. But he says it is the ship of Christ, it is the church of Christ and we should not be worried," added Burke.

Benedict will abdicate on Thursday (February 28) night and then cardinals begin consultations ahead of a conclave to choose his successor.

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