VATICAN CITY -- Pope Benedict XVI asked the tens of thousands of people who had flocked to St. Peter's Square on Sunday for one of his last public appearances to pray for him and his successor.
Speaking from his window in the Apostolic Palace, the pope did not make any direct references to his startling decision to resign effective Feb. 28. But in his greetings to pilgrims in various languages, he called on them in Spanish to "continue praying for me and for the next pope."
Thousands -- some 50,000 according to Italian news media -- filled St. Peter's Square on a mild, hazy Sunday morning. They cheered for the pope, calling out "Viva il Papa!" -- long live the Pope -- and clapping out his name rhythmically: "Be-Ne-De-To!"
Dozens of homemade banners -- mostly sheets stapled to wooden planks -- swayed throughout the square, each an expression of affection for Benedict, who stunned the world last week in becoming the first pope to retire in 600 years. Some of the banners read "With the pope forever" and "We love you very much."
One seminarian at the front of the crowd held up a simple sign that said "We'll miss you."
"He's meant a lot to me and to other Roman Catholics; it's important to pay our respects to him before we begin to speak too much about the next pope," said Mark Baumgarten, a seminarian from Perth, Australia, who is studying in Rome.
In his address, which centered on the beginning of Lent, a 40-day period of reflection before Easter, the pope called on the Roman Catholic Church and its members to refocus on God, "repudiating pride and egotism."
"In the decisive moments of life -- indeed, if we look closely, in every moment -- we are at a crossroads. Do we want to follow the self or God? Individual interest or the real good?" he said.
Francesca Della Penna, a Roman who had come to hear the pope with members of her church parish, said, "I was moved; he touched my heart."
She called his retirement announcement "a courageous decision dictated by prayer, a true message of faith."
On Sunday evening, the pope retired for a weeklong Lenten spiritual retreat with the members of his household as well as cardinals and bishops.
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, is scheduled to preach during the retreat. The pope will not have any public engagements until next Saturday, when he will meet with the president of Italy.
In the meantime, cardinals will gather in Rome to prepare for the conclave to elect his successor. Church law states that a conclave must start between 15 and 20 days after the papacy becomes vacant. But on Saturday, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said that discussions were continuing at the Vatican to determine whether Benedict's resignation would allow the conclave to begin earlier.
Not everyone in St. Peter's Square on Sunday was happy with his decision.
"We want the pope to remain with us. We think he's good for the church today, which needs to defend values like life and the family and fight relativism," said GiovanBattista Varricchio, who is studying political science at the University of Rome and is a member of the Catholic movement Militia Christi (in English, the Militia of Jesus Christ). "We came because we hope that we can convince him to change his mind."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.