Pope Benedict XVI: 'Thank you from the bottom of my heart'

Pope Benedict XVI has thanked the Catholic faithful for their support in his final general audience before his resignation on Thursday.

An estimated 150,000 people gathered in St Peter's Square to bid farewell to the first Pope to resign in 600 years.

"Thank you from the bottom of my heart, I'm really moved," he told the cheering crowds.

"I need to thank God that guides the church and develops it and feeds faith in its people. Right now my soul is open to embrace the entire church. And I would like to help everybody for the help I have received."

Acknowledging the shock over his decision, Benedict said he had taken the step "in full awareness of its gravity and novelty but with profound serenity of spirit".

Likening his times in the papacy to the experience of the fishermen Apostles, he admitted there had been difficulties.

"The Lord gave us days of sun and of light breeze, days in which the fishing was good," he said.

"There were also moments when there were stormy waters and headwinds ahead."

Benedict will receive cardinals at the Vatican tomorrow morning before flying by helicopter to his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo. He will officially cease being Pope at 7pm on Thursday evening.

Meetings will begin next week to set a date for the start of the conclave to elect his successor.

Benedict will live out the remainder of his years "hidden from the world" in prayer and reflection.