ROME -- More than 100,000 pilgrims gathered in St. Peter's Square on Wednesday to cheer as Pope Benedict XVI gave his final general audience before making history by being the first pope to resign office since the Middle Ages.
Addressing the crowd where many toted banners saying "Grazie!" ("Thank you!") the pope said, "I'd like to thank everybody for the help I have received." He said that he has experienced both joyful and difficult moments as pope.
"My heart is open to the world," Benedict said. "I will continue to accompany the church with my prayers.
"I am asking each of you to pray for me," he said.
He said he had "serene trust in God's will" in making the decision to leave not for his own good but for the good of the church, and he thanked the faithful for understanding his decision to resign.
Although he was known during his papacy as a shy scholar, Benedict appeared warmed by the massive crowds, kissing and blessing children on his final lap around the sunny square, while adults cheered and cardinals wept.
But there was an undertone of the difficulties of the papacy, even amid the celebratory moments. Benedict leaves the papacy with a fresh wave of controversial revelations swirling, threatening to leave a mark on Benedict's eight-year term and adding to the challenges to be faced by the next pope.
Whoever succeeds him, Benedict said Wednesday, "will no longer have any privacy. He will belong forever and totally to everyone and to all the church."
On Tuesday, the Vatican said Benedict would in retirement continue to wear the white cassock of the papacy and be called "emeritus pope" or "Your Holiness," raising questions about the peculiar situation soon to confront the church: having a reigning and a retired pope, living side-by-side.
The Vatican says it foresees no problems and Benedict has said he will pray and be "hidden to the world."
Pope Benedict XVI officially steps down Thursday at 8:00 p.m. local time. The date for the conclave, the process by which the next pope will be selected, has not yet been announced.
By Eric Lyman, USA TODAY
Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard in London