VATICAN CITY -- Pope Benedict XVI bid an emotional farewell yesterday to his flock on the eve of his retirement, recalling in his final speech as pontiff moments of "joy and light" but also times of difficulty when "it seemed like the Lord was sleeping."
An estimated 150,000 people flooded St. Peter's Square for Benedict's last general audience, eager to show their support and bear witness to the final hours of a papacy that will go down in history as the first one in 600 years to end in resignation rather than death.
Benedict, 85, clearly enjoyed the occasion, taking a long victory lap around the square in an open-sided car and stopping to kiss and bless half a dozen babies and infants handed to him by his secretary.
Seventy cardinals, some tearful, sat in solemn attendance -- then gave him a standing ovation.
Given the historic moment, Benedict also eschewed his typical professorial Wednesday catechism lesson and instead gave a personal, heartfelt final address, explaining once again why he was retiring but assuring his flock of 1.2 billion that he was not abandoning them.
"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," Benedict said to applause.
During his eight years as pope, Benedict said he had had "moments of joy and light, but also moments that haven't been easy . . . moments of turbulent seas and rough winds, as has occurred in the history of the church when it seemed like the Lord was sleeping."
But he said he never felt alone, that God always guided him, and he thanked his colleagues for their support and for "understanding and respecting this important decision."
He will meet this morning with cardinals for a final time, then fly by helicopter to the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo south of Rome.
The last day
Benedict's final day as pope (All times approximate)
10:15 A.M., Eastern time: Benedict takes his leave of Cardinal Bertone, secretary of state, in the San Damaso courtyard and is driven to a helipad within the Vatican grounds.
11 A.M.: Cardinal Sodano and Vatican staff bid farewell to Pope Benedict as helicopter departs.
11:40 A.M.: Helicopter arrives at Albano near Castel Gandolfo on Rome's outskirts and Pope Benedict transfers to a vehicle for a short journey to his temporary residence.
Noon: Benedict appears at a window overlooking the public square in Castel Gandolfo and blesses a crowd expected to be several thousand strong.
2 P.M.: Benedict ceases to be pope; Swiss guards at the entrance to Castel Gandolfo leave their posts.