VATICAN CITY - Looking tired but serene, Pope Benedict XVI told thousands of faithful Wednesday that he was stepping down for "the good of the church," speaking in his first public appearance since dropping the bombshell announcement of his resignation.
The 85-year-old Benedict basked in more than a minute-long standing ovation when he entered the packed audience hall for his traditional Wednesday general audience. He was interrupted by applause by the thousands of people, many of whom had tears in their eyes.
A huge banner reading "Grazie Santita" (Thank you Your Holiness) was strung up at the back of the hall.
Benedict appeared wan and spoke very softly, but his eyes twinkled with joy at the flock's warm and heartfelt welcome. He repeated in Italian what he had told his cardinals Monday in Latin: that he simply didn't have the strength to continue.
"As you know, I have decided to renounce the ministry that the Lord gave to me on April 19, 2005," he said, to applause. "I did this in full liberty for the good of the church."
He asked the faithful "to continue to pray for the pope and the church."
Benedict is the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years, and the decision has placed the Vatican in uncharted waters: No one knows what he'll be called or what he'll wear after Feb. 28.
The Vatican, however, has made it clear that Benedict will play no role in the election of his successor, and once retired, he will be fully retired. He plans to live a life of prayer in a converted monastery on the far northern edge of the Vatican gardens.
As a result, Benedict's final public appearances are expected to draw great crowds, as they may well represent some of the last public speeches for a man who has spent his life — as a priest, a cardinal and a pope — teaching and preaching.
And they will also represent a way for the faithful to say farewell under happier circumstances than when his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, died in 2005.
"We were just coming for vacation, and now we are getting all of this!" marveled Terry Rodger, a tourist from New Orleans as he headed to the audience. "I am very excited. I'm surprised."
The audience was the start of a busy day for Benedict: he will also preside over Ash Wednesday services later in the day to mark the official start of the Catholic Church's solemn Lenten season. The service is usually held in a church on Rome's Aventine hill, but was moved at the last minute to St. Peter's Basilica. The Vatican said the shift was made to accommodate the crowds, though it will also spare the pope the usual procession to the church.
The Vatican insisted no serious medical ailment was behind Benedict's decision to retire, though it admitted for the first time on Tuesday that Benedict has had a pacemaker for years and recently had it replaced.
The move sets the stage for a conclave by mid-March to elect a new pope. Benedict's final general audience will be held Feb. 27.
"It is the perfect occasion to give a cordial and affectionate goodbye to this pope who has given us a great example of courage, humility, inner honesty, and a great love for the church," said Monsignor Claudio Maria Celli, head of the Vatican's communications office.
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Trisha Thomas and Daniela Petroff contributed to this report.