VATICAN CITY Pope Benedict XVI presided over Ash Wednesday services, his final public Mass, at St. Peter's Basilica, thanking the faithful for their support during his nearly eight-year pontificate, which will end Feb. 28 when he becomes the first pope to resign in almost 600 years.
The basilica was packed for the occasion as the pope, dressed in the traditional purple robes worn at Lent, the 40-day period of fasting and prayer preceding Easter, celebrated a solemn Mass attended by a number of the cardinals who will be called on to choose his successor in just over a month.
Among them was Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's secretary of state, who at the end of the service addressed the pope's unexpected decision to step down.
"We wouldn't be sincere, Your Holiness, if we didn't tell you that this evening there is a veil of sadness in our hearts," Bertone said, his voice breaking.
He praised the pope's "strong faith" and "great courage" that led him to make a decision that was guided by Benedict's "deep love" for God and the church.
The congregants burst into a deafening standing ovation that lasted for minutes and continued as Benedict left the Basilica, standing on a wheeled platform, smiling and waving at the people lining the nave of the cavernous baroque church. Many wiped away tears.
In his homily, Benedict called for the end of rivalries in the church. Christians are called to bear witness to faith, to reveal the "face of the church," which is at times "disfigured," he said.
"I am thinking in particular of the sins against the unity of the church, of the divisions in the body of the church," he said. "Overcoming individualism and rivalry is a humble and precious sign for those who have distanced themselves from the faith or who are indifferent."
Earlier, an equally enthusiastic crowd greeted Benedict at his weekly audience at the Vatican. It was his first public appearance since the announcement of his resignation two days before and one of the dwindling opportunities for his followers to see and hear him before he withdraws into a far more sheltered life in a convent within the Vatican, where an apartment is being prepared for him.
The pope told the faithful that he had made his decision "in full freedom for the good of the church" because he no longer had the strength needed to carry out the duties of the papacy, and he reassured them that his choice would not damage the church.
"I am strengthened and reassured by the certainty that the church is Christ's, who will never leave her without his guidance and care," the pope said. "I thank all of you for the love and for the prayers with which you have accompanied me. Thank you. In these days which have not been easy for me, I have felt almost physically the power of prayer your prayers which the love of the church has given me. Continue to pray for me, for the church and for the future pope. The Lord will guide us."
A huge banner at the rear of the Vatican's Paul VI audience hall, which can hold around 8,000 people, proclaimed "Thanks Your Holiness."
Francesca Meggiorini of Verona, Italy, one of the many Catholics who gathered for a last glimpse of the pope, brought her four children because, she said, "this is special."
"I wanted my kids to be present," she added. "The pope was a man whose simple words went straight to the heart. So it's wonderful for my children to be here. I think this experience will remain in their memory."
At a news conference Wednesday, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said the conclave to choose the next pope would begin 15 to 20 days after the pope resigns, and a new leader of the church is expected to be in place by Easter, on March 31. But the cardinals, he said, would begin to meet beforehand in plenary sessions for discussions so that they would be informed as they go into the conclave.
As that process plays out, Benedict himself will spend his final day as pope bidding farewell to cardinals in the morning. Then he plans to fly by helicopter in the afternoon to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, in the hills outside Rome, where he will be when his resignation takes effect at 8 p.m. local time, Lombardi said.
The pope will then move into the convent, where his presence should be of comfort to his successor, Lombardi said.
"It is a wise solution for Benedict to stay in Vatican City, where he can pray, study and have personal contacts, " Lombardi said. "The successor and the cardinals will be happy to have very nearby someone who knows well what the spiritual needs of the church are."