POPE Benedict bid an emotional farewell at his last general audience today, saying he had done it for the good of the Catholic Church.
Speaking to a huge crowd of over 100,000 in St Peter's Square, the pope said he was aware of the "gravity and novelty" of his decision to resign and would "accompany" the Church in prayer even after his resignation the following day.
"I took this step in full awareness of its gravity and novelty but with profound serenity of spirit," he said.
The pontiff sent shockwaves around the Catholic world on February 11 when he announced his intention to retire on the last day of February - the first pope to do so since Gregory XII in 1415.
At just after 10.30am, a loud cheer rose as his white Popemobile appeared on the square and the 85-year old began his last tour through the crowd, pausing at one stage to kiss a baby held up to him.
About 60 cardinals were in attendance - over half of the full number of 115 who will elect Pope Benedict's successor when the conclave begins on an as-yet unspecified date next month.
Also in his speech, he said his Papacy had faced joy, but also had undergone "difficult moments".
Invoking a Biblical analogy, he said: "The Lord gave us days of sun and of light breeze, days in which the fishing was good. There were also moments when there were stormy waters and headwinds."
Pope Benedict thanked his cardinals, colleagues and the 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."
He told thousands that his decision to resign "is the fruit of a serene trust in God's will and a deep love of Christ's church."
He asked the audience to pray for the cardinals as they faced a weighty task choosing his successor and also to pray for whoever they chose.
At the end of his final address, the Pope received a prolonged standing ovation from the crowd and from the rows of cardinals and bishops.
After the general audience today, the Pope will meet a small group of heads of state and then will leave the Vatican later today and fly by helicopter to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome, until renovations have been completed on a monastery inside the Vatican walls.