Crowds have gathered in St. Peter's Square to hear Pope Benedict XVI address the public one final time in a general audience. The occassion comes on the eve of his resignation.
People from around the globe began arriving at St. Peter's Square hours ahead of the regular Wednesday general audience to make sure they had a good view of the soon to be "emeritus pope." Some 50,000 had already obtained tickets, according to the Vatican, which said it expected many more to stream in, filling any empty spaces around the area cordoned off for ticket holders.
Pope Benedict XVI's final farewell - due at 10:30 a.m. local time - would reportedly follow the standard format of his weekly public audience, including several readings, prayers and a blessing. However, it was unclear whether he would offer another clarification for his surprise decision, which he has done several times since the announcement of his resignation on February 11.
Citing "advanced age" as a hindrance to properly carrying out his duties as pope, the 85-year-old pontiff has has attempted to clarify his departure on several occasions, and what connection he hopes to maintain with the 1.2 billion members of the Church.
Over the weekend, Benedict told a crowd of some 100,000 that had gathered for his final Sunday blessing that he was not abandoning the Church by stepping down, but rather serving the Church "in a way that is more commensurate to my age and my strength."
He has also asked for Catholics worldwide to continue supporting him and the Church through prayer.
The final public audience comes one day before Pope Benedict retires to a private life of prayer and meditation.
On Thursday, Benedict is scheduled to fly from Rome to the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo. The public will be able to catch one final glimpse of him before the official end of his papacy at 8 p.m. local time, at which point the Swiss Guard will also leave the residence.
The College of Cardinals is scheduled to meet early next week to discuss the current priorities for the Church and to set the date for the conclave, where the next pope will be elected.
As Benedict is only the second pope to resign of his own free will since the Middle Ages, popes generally hold the office for the remainder of their lives once elected, his decision has raised many questions about what role he will assume and how his life will look in the future.
The Vatican released details of the new protocol for addressing the retired pope earlier this week. Benedict XVI will reportedly continue wearing the papal white cassock, but plans to trade in the traditional red shoes for a pair of handcrafted, brown shoes he was given during a trip to Mexico last year.
He will receive two new titles - "Roman pontiff emeritus" and "emeritus pope" - but will continue to be addressed directly as "Your Holiness."
Following his sojourn at Castel Gandolfo for the next few weeks, he plans to live in a converted monastery on Vatican grounds.
Benedict has said he will live "hidden from the world," but Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi has said he would likely continue to publish his theological research.
kms/rg (AFP, AP, dpa)