Pope Benedict XVI told as many as 200,000 people jammed in and around St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Wednesday for his final general audience that there were times of "joy and light" during his papacy, but also difficult times.

Benedict, who will retire Thursday at 2 p.m. ET to a life of prayer and seclusion, thanked people in Rome and around the world for respecting his decision to become the first pope to step down in almost 600 years.

The Pope said in Italian that he was conscious of the "gravity" of his decision and made it with "profound sincerity of spirit," according to a translation provided by Reuters news agency.

Benedict announced earlier this month that he was stepping aside. He said Wednesday that he was stepping down not for his own good, but for the good of the church.

He recalled that when he was elected Pope on April 19, 2005, he questioned if God truly wanted it. "I't's a great burden that you've placed on my shoulders,'" he recalled telling God.

In the eight years since his election, he said, "I have had moments of joy and light, but also moments that haven't been easy … moments of turbulent seas and rough winds."

Speaking later in English, he said, "I will continue to accompany the church with my prayers and ask each of you to pray for me and for the new pope."

General audiences are weekly appointments the Pope kept with the faithful and tourists to teach them about the Catholic faith. In winter, the audiences are generally held indoors, but this event was held outside to accommodate the 50,000 worshippers who requested tickets. Italian police estimated the crowd at around 200,000. Official representatives from several countries were in attendance, including leaders of Slovakia and San Marino.

Before and after speaking, the Pope was driven through the square in an open-sided vehicle, amid cheering worshippers who waved the flags of their countries and banners saying 'Thank you!' He waved, smiled and blessed several children handed to him by his secretary.

Emeritus pope to be 'hidden from the world'

The 85-year-old will be known as emeritus pope and will keep the title of His Holiness in retirement. Benedict has said he will spend his retirement "hidden from the world" as he leads a life of prayer.

Vatican officials have said that the Pope will initially travel by helicopter to his papal summer home of Castel Gandolfo. He will later move to a monastery inside the Vatican.

Next Monday, the College of Cardinals will meet to set a date for the start of the secret vote to pick a successor to lead the world's approximately 1.2 billion Catholics.

Three Canadians will be part of the conclave of cardinals who will gather to select the next pope. Vatican spokesman Rev. Thomas Rosica told CBC News that, as of the start of the general audience, not all the cardinals had arrived.

Cardinal Thomas Collins, the Archbishop of Toronto, told CBC's Heather Hiscox on Tuesday that playing a part in choosing the next pope is an "awesome" responsibility.

Collins, who is in Rome, said that he was "overwhelmed by the majesty of the occasion."

Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, the Archbishop Emeritus of Montreal, and Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec will also be among the senior Catholic clergy on hand to choose the next head of the Roman Catholic Church.

In all, 115 cardinals under the age of 80 are expected in Rome for the conclave to vote on who should become the next pope; two other eligible cardinals have already said they are not coming, one from Britain and another from Indonesia. Cardinals who are 80 and older can join the college meetings but won't participate in the conclave or vote.

Earlier this week, Benedict gave the cardinals the go-ahead to move up the start date of the conclave — tossing out the traditional 15-day waiting period. But the cardinals won't actually set a date for the conclave until they begin meeting officially Monday.

'I came to thank him'

The rank-and-file in the crowd on Wednesday weren't so concerned with the future; they wanted to savour the final moments with the Pope they have known for eight years.

"I came to thank him for the testimony that he has given the church," said Maria Cristina Chiarini, a 52-year-old homemaker who travelled by train early Wednesday from Lugo, near Ravenna, with some 60 members of her parish. "There's nostalgia, human nostalgia, but also comfort, because as a Christian we have hope. The Lord won't leave us without a guide."

CBC's Susan Ormiston said from the square that very most people she spoke to respected his decision to step down, with only few expressing disappointment.

The church "is already moving toward its new leader and old problems," she tweeted.

Rev. Terence Fay, a Jesuit priest and a professor at the Toronto School of Theology, said the address ended Benedict's pontificate on a positive note.

"It opens the way for a new vision, a new pope and a new church," he told CBC News. "The church is alive and well and young. It's only 2,000 years old, and we look forward to when it's 40,000 years old and all our problems are resolved."

Pontiff faced controversies

The pontiff has faced criticism over the church's handling of sex abuse scandals and its inability to stem the decline in membership.

The resignation of British Cardinal Keith O'Brien on Feb. 24 over allegations of inappropriate behaviour is the latest scandal facing the Catholic Church in the run-up to the election of the next pope.

However, supporters of Benedict defend his record, citing his willingness to improve relations with religious leaders of other faiths and his proficiency as an academic theologian.

"If you read the Italian papers, one would think that the ship has sunk," Rosica said. "And this morning we see that the ship is sailing and the Lord is with us in the boat."

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