Resigning pope to impart wisdom after emotional mass

Pope Benedict XVI will address Rome's parish priests on Thursday, talking about his personal experiences as a young church reformer ahead of his stepping down at the end of the month, the Vatican said.

The meeting comes a day after emotional scenes at his final public papal mass in St Peter's Basilica, with observers saying his speech to priests will be akin to a "theological testament", forming part of the 85-year-old's legacy.

The Vatican said he would tell the meeting, which begins at 1030 GMT, of his experiences at the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, which sought to define the role of the church in the modern world and changed the face of Catholicism.

Since then, Benedict, who says his advancing age is preventing him from keeping up with the modern world, has become far more conservative.

He has attempted to turn back the clock on more leftist currents in Catholicism, while seeking during his eight-year pontificate to rekindle the religious fervour of the time.

Thousands of tearful priests, nuns and ordinary faithful applauded the pope at the Wednesday mass. Cardinals thanked the outgoing pontiff for his service, doffing their mitres as a mark of respect.

The pope waved and smiled at the crowd, appearing relieved following his momentous announcement on Monday, which will make him only the second pope to resign in the Church's 2,000-year history and the first to do so in 700 years.

His final homily was a hard-hitting one, condemning the "hypocrisy" of those who use their religion just for show. He also urged an end to "rivalry" and "divisions" within a Church that has been plagued in recent years by a series of scandals.

At his weekly general audience on Wednesday, the pope told thousands of cheering supporters that he was resigning "for the good of the Church".

Thanking them for their love and support, he said that " these days which have not been easy for me, I have felt almost physically the power of prayer..."

He added: "Keep praying for me, for the Church and for the future pope."

The pope has said he plans to step down on February 28 and retire to a quiet life in a Vatican monastery, setting up an unprecedented situation in which a pope and his predecessor will live within a stone's throw of each other.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi says Benedict -- who will revert to his previous name of Joseph Ratzinger -- could continue to provide some kind of spiritual guidance for his successor, but his role and title remain unclear.

The final two weeks of his papacy will combine public engagements with private prayer, with much of next week taken up by spiritual reflection during a period of penitence in the Christian calendar before Easter.

On the eve of his departure, the pope will hold an audience in St Peter's Square. Thousands are expected to bid their final farewell to the contested but respected leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.

The Vatican has said it expects the Conclave of Cardinals, meeting behind closed doors under Michelangelo's famous frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, to elect Benedict's successor by Easter, which this year falls on March 31.

"If everything goes normally, it could be envisioned that the conclave begins between 15 and 19 March," said Lombardi. It would be for the cardinals to determine the exact date, he added.

The next pope will have to face up to the problems posed by rising secularism in much of the Western world, as well as the need to not only stamp out the problem of clerical child abuse but to investigate thousands of past cases.

Another challenge to the Church as it moves forward is the legalisation in several countries of gay marriage.

The new pope will also have to deal with shifting attitudes to divorce, abortion, the ordination of women and priestly celibacy.