VATICAN CITY Pope Benedict XVI bestowed his final Sunday blessing of his pontificate on a cheering crowd in St. Peter's Square, 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.
Sunday's noon appearance from his studio window overlooking the vast square was his next-to-last appointment with the public of his nearly eight-year papacy. Tens of thousands of faithful and other admirers have already 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 and 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, as many in the crowd looked sad at his approaching departure. "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."
The phrase "tried to" was the pope's adlibbed addition to his prepared text.
Benedict smiled in pleasure at the crowd after an aide parted the white curtain at his window and he gazed at the people packing the square, craning their head for a look at him. Giving greetings in several languages, he gratefully acknowledged what he said was an outpouring of "gratitude, affection and closeness in prayer" since he stunned the church and its 1.2 billion members on Feb. 11 with his decision to renounce his papacy and retreat into a world of contemplation.
No date has yet been set for the start of the conclave of cardinals, who will vote in secret to elect Benedict's successor.
The cardinals in the conclave will have to decide whether it's time to look outside of Europe for a pope. The papacy was considered the realm of Italian prelates for centuries, until a Pole, John Paul II, was elected as pontiff in 1978, to be followed in 2005 by the German-born Benedict.
Crucially, Italian prelates have continued to run the behind-the-scenes machinery of the church's governance, and cardinals will likely be deciding what role the Italians might have played in a series of scandals clouding the central bureaucracy, including allegations of corruption and power-grabbing.
Benedict has not made any direct comment on details of the scandals.
In one of his last papal tweets, Benedict wrote Sunday in English: "In these momentous days, I ask you to pray for me and for the church, trusting as always in divine providence."