Pope Benedict XVI bestowed his final Sunday blessing of his nearly 8-year pontificate on a cheering crowd at St. Peter's Square in Vatican City, explaining that his waning years and energy made him better suited to the life of private prayer he soon will spend in a secluded monastery than as leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
On Thursday evening, the 85-year-old German-born theologian will become the first pope to have resigned from the papacy in 600 years.
Some Hudson Valley Catholics said Sunday that Benedict's surprise Feb. 11 resignation -- which stunned the church and its 1.2 billion members -- could have a positive effect.
"He feels he can't do his job because he's getting older and getting sick," said Pauline Gertzen outside St. Margaret Church in Pearl River after a packed 10:30 a.m. Mass on Sunday. "He's stepping down; he's doing it for the people."
Msgr. Christopher Maloney of St. John the Baptist Church in Yonkers told News12 that in the wake of recent sex abuse scandals and other issues facing the church, Benedict was doing the right thing.
"I think he is very much aware of the fact that if we are going to meet these challenges that we must have a strong faith," Maloney said. "We have to have a good life. That we must be good examples to other people."
Parishioner Catherine Dolphin of Pearl River still was trying to understand Benedict's decision. "I was shocked," she said under overcast skies. "I was born and raised in Ireland. I was always taught the pope was next to God. That he talks to God. He's it. So maybe he got a message from God that this is what he was supposed to do."
Benedict's appearance from his studio window in Vatican City is his next-to-last appointment with the public of his papacy. Tens of thousands of faithful and other admirers already have asked the Vatican for a seat in the square for his last general audience Wednesday.
Perhaps emotionally buoyed by the warm welcome, thunderous applause and the many banners reading "Grazie" (Thanks) held up in the crowd estimated by police to number 100,000, Benedict looked relaxed and sounded energized, in sharp contrast to his apparent frailty and weariness of recent months.
In a strong, clear voice, Benedict told the pilgrims, tourists and Romans in the square that God had called him to dedicate himself "even more to prayer and meditation," which he will do in a monastery being renovated for him on the grounds behind Vatican City's ancient walls.
"But this doesn't mean abandoning the church," he said. "On the contrary, if God asks me, this is because I can continue to serve it [the church] with the same dedication and the same love which I have tried to do so until now, but in a way more suitable to my age and to my strength."
No date has been set for the start of the conclave of cardinals, which will vote in secret to elect Benedict's successor.
Back in Pearl River, Msgr. John O'Keefe said he wasn't shocked by the pope's abdication but was surprised by the timing.
"He just announced it," O'Keefe said. "No one knew this was coming, and I admire his courage for doing it. I thought he was an excellent pope. A very humble man who was open to the people."
With The Associated Press and Newsday contributor DZ Stone