Benedict triumphantly raised his arms to the crowd in his second-to-last Angelus blessing before leaving the papacy. A huge banner in the square read: “We love you.”
The Sunday appointment is one of the most cherished traditions of the Catholic Church, and this moment is one of Benedict’s last opportunities to connect with the Catholic masses.
The Pope’s voice was strong and clear as he looked into hazy sunshine over the square packed with at least 50,000 pilgrims.
He made no reference to his decision to step down on 28 February. But in an indirect nod, he thanked the faithful for their “affection and spiritual closeness”. The crowd broke out into cheers and wild applause.
The Pope gave particular thanks to the “beloved inhabitants of the city of Rome”, a possible hint at the title he will take after retirement. The Vatican has suggested he may be called “emeritus bishop of Rome”.
The traditional noon appointment normally attracts a few thousand pilgrims and tourists, but city officials prepared for a crush of people.
“We wanted to wish him well,” said Amy Champion, a tourist from Wales. “It takes a lot of guts to take the job and even more guts ... to quit.”
The Pope will be out of the public eye for an entire week: a meditation service at the Vatican marks the beginning of the traditional Lenten period of reflection and prayer.
Rome threw on extra buses and subway trains to help deal with the crowds.