VATICAN CITY -- A crowd of at least 200,000 chanted, sang and shouted messages of love Wednesday for Pope Benedict XVI at his last scheduled public appearance, where he spoke of his decision to resign and his confidence that Jesus would guide the Roman Catholic Church into a joyous, renewed faith and witness.
Echoing the homily of his inaugural Mass in April 2005, he surveyed the largely young crowd that overflowed St. Peter's Square and proclaimed, "I see the church is alive!"
He sought to assure his audience that his decision was guided by the Holy Spirit.
"In these last months, I have felt that my strength had diminished, and I asked God earnestly in prayer to enlighten me with His light to make me make the right decision, not for my own good, but for the good of the church," he said. "I have taken this step in full awareness of its seriousness and also its newness, but with a profound peace of mind. Loving the church also means having the courage to make difficult, agonized choices, always keeping in mind the good of the church, not of oneself."
His historic resignation, the first in 600 years, takes effect at 8 p.m. Rome time today.
The 85-year-old pontiff entered the square standing in the Popemobile, grasping a rollbar with one hand while blessing the crowd with the other. One of countless signs and banners in many languages said in Italian, "You have not abandoned us but strengthened us. Mission well done Holy Father."
Just before taking his seat atop the steps of St. Peter's Basilica, he blessed a baby that his priest-secretary handed up to him. The crowd, filled with flags from nations as diverse as Belgium, China and Lebanon applauded, cheered and sang as he stood, beaming with arms raised in a final greeting. Some had camped on the street overnight to be sure they could get in.
His talk, given in Italian, was highly personal.
He spoke of thoughts he had had when he was elected April 19, 2005. "The words that resounded in my heart were: Lord, what do You ask of me? It is a great weight that You are placing on my shoulders but, if You ask it of me, I will cast my nets at your command, confident that You will guide me, even with all my weaknesses. And eight years later I can say that the Lord has guided me. He has been close to me. I have felt His presence every day. It has been a stretch of the church's path that has had moments of joy and light, but also difficult moments."
He didn't elaborate. But his goal to bring renewal to an increasingly secularized West was often overshadowed by problems ranging from the sex abuse crisis to riots in parts of the Muslim world after a line in one of his speeches was misconstrued.
He compared his experience to that of St. Peter and the apostles in a storm-tossed boat as Jesus slept.
"The Lord has given us many days of sunshine and light breezes, days when the fishing was plentiful, but also times when the water was rough and the winds against us, just as throughout the whole history of the church, when the Lord seemed to be sleeping. But I always knew that the Lord is in that boat and I always knew that the boat of the church is not mine, not ours, but is His. And the Lord will not let it sink," Pope Benedict said.
"And that is why my heart today is filled with gratitude to God, because He never left -- the whole church or me -- without His consolation, His light, or His love."
He was interrupted many times by applause and chants of "Benedetto," lasting long after he had finished speaking.
"He just distilled a semester's worth of ecclesiology into a 10-minute talk. That was amazing," said Michael Conway, 32, a third-year Pittsburgh seminarian studying at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.
When he heard the news of the resignation, "I didn't want it to be true," he said.
Although Mr. Conway's cohort of young priests and seminarians are often called the John Paul II Generation, "I'm a Benedict guy," he said.
He was living in Bethel Park, working for a mortgage company, rarely attending church, when he heard the news of Pope John Paul's death. He immediately rushed to a Saturday evening Mass "and that was the beginning of my conversion," he said.
Returning to faith in the new pontificate, he said, Pope Benedict became "my spiritual father."
Mr. Conway mourned the resignation, in part because he had hoped to serve at one of Pope Benedict's Masses when he is ordained a deacon.
"He is such a great teacher, and he has more to teach us," he said.
Also in the square were Duquesne University students and their communications professor from the school's Rome campus.
The pope's resignation "has been a learning lab to see what happens when the world comes together," said Beth Michalec, a doctoral student who is teaching classes in communications. "For us, it's an opportunity to embrace the idea of global citizenship and the power of faith."
Her students spoke of being 11 or 12 years old when Pope John Paul II died and watching television as millions of pilgrims descended on Rome for his funeral. Pope Benedict's final audience was very different in spirit, said Sandi Communale, 19, a sophomore from Seven Fields.
"There was joy and love in that circle. It was like a celebration," she said. "It's humbling to be in the presence of all of these people who are here for the same purpose you are. And we're witnessing history. We came to Rome to learn about history, not experience it. But we are."
Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh was overwhelmed by his sense of personal history. As bishop of Green Bay, Wis., in April 2005, he had been on a long-scheduled visit to meet with his Rome seminarians when the white smoke rose and he stood just below the balcony where Pope Benedict first appeared. On Wednesday, he was again on a long-scheduled visit to his seminarians when Pope Benedict gave his final reflection.
"There is something refreshing in that the pope can know how many people love him and are grateful for what he does," he said. "It was a tremendous blessing to be there for part of history, to witness the last public act of a man who has poured out his gifts to serve all of us."
• Visit post-gazette.com for video coverage of Pope Benedict's final public appearance.
Ann Rodgers: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416. First Published February 28, 2013 5:00 AM