VATICAN CITY -- In his last Sunday blessing before he retires, Pope Benedict XVI reassured Catholics that he was not abandoning them but would continue to serve the church even in his retirement.
Romans, pilgrims and curious tourists filled St. Peter's Square on Sunday for Benedict's second-to-last public appearance before he steps down on Thursday, the first pope in six centuries to do so willingly.
Reading from prepared remarks as he stood at the window of the Apostolic Palace, Benedict that said he was being called by God "to climb up on the mountain" and to dedicate himself more to "prayer and meditation."
"This doesn't mean abandoning the church," the pope added, to the applause of the crowd. "On the contrary, if God asks me, this is because I can continue to serve" the church "with the same dedication and the same love which I have tried to do so until now, but in a way more suitable to my age and to my strength."
Cardinals from around the world have begun gathering in Rome to greet Benedict before he retires at 8 p.m. on Thursday. At that point, the cardinals will meet to discuss when to begin the conclave to elect his successor.
One member of the crowd in St. Peter's Square on Sunday, Jan Cartwright, 61, said she had traveled to Rome from Wales. "We've come for the rugby, but we're Catholic, and it is history, isn't it," she said.
Ms. Cartwright said she was surprised that the pope had decided to resign. "We have the queen," she said. "No one in the royal family would step down, they just go on until they die, really." But she said she admired Benedict's decision. "I think it's a brave thing to do," she said. "He's an old man."
Maria Concetta Campanella from Rome was also in the crowd. "It's a historic moment," she said. "It teaches us humility. He teaches us that we can't sit in our chairs forever, that when the time is right, we have to leave the chair."
Vito Ugo, an Augustinian monk holding a Brazilian flag, was taking pictures with two of his fellow monks, all dressed in long black robes. "We feel great emotion to be here," he said.
Asked whether he hoped the cardinals would elect a South American pope in the conclave, Brother Ugo smiled. "If it's what God wants," he said humbly.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.