VATICAN CITY -- He circumnavigated St. Peter's Square in the popemobile for the last time. He gave his final waves to cheering masses. And most profoundly, Pope Benedict XVI bestowed his valedictory words to the world in a heartfelt, sometimes wistful address that highlighted the price of being a pope -- and its rays of happiness.
His eight-year papacy held moments of "joy and light," at times resembling the boat carrying Peter and the other apostles on the Sea of Galilee, enjoying many days of sun, gentle breezes and abundant fish, Benedict told tens of thousands of people during his general audience, which was moved to a sun-soaked St. Peter's Square from the usual auditorium to accommodate the crowd.
"There were also moments in which the waters were agitated and the wind contrary," he said. "The Lord seemed to be sleeping."
Benedict, 85, resigns on Thursday, exiting the papacy at 8 p.m. In the morning, he meets the cardinals who will elect his successor sometime next month. At 5 p.m. a helicopter will fly him to his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, where he is expected to wave to well-wishers and utter a few words. By 8:01 p.m., he will have the title "pope emeritus."
Church officials said 150,000 people gathered in St. Peter's Square on Wednesday. They waved flags, applauded and chanted "Benedetto" under a brilliant blue sky, as the pope, clad in a white, double-breasted overcoat, spoke to them mainly in Italian but also gave brief remarks in other languages. The popemobile halted several times so its occupant could kiss babies handed up to him.
In the most personal part of his speech, Benedict drove home a central truth for any world-renowned figure, much less a pontiff: Privacy does not exist -- a message that could be considered a warning to his successor.
Recalling the day he was elected pope on April 19, 2005, Benedict said he took on a forever job. "He who assumes the ministry of Peter no longer has any privacy," he said. "He belongs forever and totally to all people, to all the church. The private dimension is totally, so to speak, removed from his life."
And that will not change, he said, even though he has given up his ministry and is turning to a life of prayer, without the trips, meetings, receptions and conferences that make up so much of a pope's life. "There is no returning to the private," Benedict said, but he will serve the church "in a new way."
Stirring the waters of the Benedict years were a contagion of child sexual-abuse scandals involving priests; missteps that provoked the anger of some Jews, Muslims and Anglicans; and the leaking of damaging internal Vatican documents. More recently, Italian news reports have said an investigation by three cardinals into the leaked documents has detailed corruption in the Vatican ranks.
Benedict, the first pope in nearly 600 years to step down voluntarily, repeated the explanation he proffered in making the announcement on Feb. 11. "In these last months, I felt that my strength was diminished," he said. He asked God to help him make the decision "not for my good, but for the good of the church."
He said he took the step fully aware of its seriousness and novelty, "but with a profound serenity of spirit."
In an Academy Awards-like passage, Benedict also gave thanks to a list of people: his "brother cardinals"; the members of the Vatican Curia, or administrative body; the Holy See's diplomatic corps; the bishops; and the "ordinary people" who had sent their good wishes.
Many in the square traveled from outside Rome. "We came to give the pope our support," said Giovanni Sali, 25, a student with a pierced lip and sunglasses who had arrived from central Italy. "We want him to know we are close to him."
About 70 cardinals, some of whom arrived in recent days in anticipation of the conclave to elect a new pope, were seated in the square, rising to join in several minutes of applause at the end of the speech. The cardinals plan to gather on Monday to set the date for the conclave to begin.
After the speech, it was on to those routine meetings with dignitaries that popes hold -- but again, freighted with significance because they were the last in Benedict's pontificate. According to a list provided by the Vatican, the pope met, in the Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace, the president of Slovakia, Ivan Gasparovic, and officials of the tiny republic of San Marino, the principality of Andorra, the German state of Bavaria (Benedict's home state) and the mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno.
Rachel Donadio contributed reporting.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.