(VATICAN CITY) -- On his final full day as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI thanked a huge crowd for respecting his historic decision to step down and told them that God will continue to guide the church.
"The decision I have made, after much prayer, is the fruit of a serene trust in God's will and a deep love of Christ's Church," Benedict said to cheers in his last public words as pope.
Benedict, 85, is the first pope to resign in 600 years. He told the crowd on Wednesday that he was "deeply grateful for the understanding, support and prayers of so many of you, not only here in Rome, but also throughout the world."
Under sunny skies on this late February day, hundreds of thousands of people flocked to Vatican City to see Benedict make a final lap around St. Peter's Square. Throughout his eight-year papacy, Benedict has conducted a weekly audience from St. Peter's.
Before delivering his last papal address on Wednesday, Benedict waved to the festive group of supporters as he toured the square in his glass-encased pope mobile.
The conclave to elect Benedict's replacement will start next month at a date yet to be determined. Benedict issued a decree known as a "motu poprio" that will allow cardinals to convene the conclave sooner than the March 15 date that would have been mandated under the old rules.
Benedict on Wednesday asked the faithful to pray for him and for the new pope.
"My heart is filled with thanksgiving to God who ever watches over his church," Benedict said.
The German-born Benedict, who had appeared frail at times in recent months, seemed more energized in his remarks on Wednesday. He has said he will devote more time to prayer and meditation after he leaves the papacy.
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