Emotional scenes at Pope Benedict XVI's last audience

Tens of thousands of emotional pilgrims cheered and whooped as Pope Benedict XVI rode out on St. Peter's Square in his white "popemobile" Wednesday for his final general audience before resigning.

Nuns, priests and whole families had flocked to the Vatican to get a front-row view of the pope, waving flags and holding up banners expressing their love for the 85-year old Benedict.

"Be-ne-dict!" and "Long live the pope!" the crowd chanted in almost stadium-like atmosphere.

"He won't be pope officially any more, but he'll always be special to me," said 12-year old Giulia, who came to see the audience -- his last major public act before stepping down -- with her school class.

"He did the right thing resigning, he's old and we don't want him to do too much and die, he needs a rest," her friend Sara said, as she snacked on sweets in front St. Peter's, where an estimated 150,000 people gathered to say goodbye.

Priests wearing paper hats made out of the Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire to shield them from the hot Roman sun could also be seen in the heaving square, where hundreds of church groups had seats in front of the basilica.

"I love the pope, I'm sad that he's leaving, but he has made a grand gesture of love for the Church," said Giuseppe Fan from Vietnam, who is training to be a priest, as he stood on tiptoe on the steps surrounding a fountain to get a good view.

"Ultimately, it's a day of joy, of thanks," he said, as a brass band struck up.

Pilgrims holding banners reading "Benedict, be pope again!" and "Benedict, change your mind!" chanted the pope's name as he rode past them in the popemobile, with Swiss guards standing by to control the ecstatic crowds.

"You Will Always Be In Our Heart!" read one sign.

"I have come to show how much I appreciate what Benedict has done for us over the last eight years. He resigned without bitterness, but with sweetness and serenity," said Father Giulio, 67, as the organ of St Peter's Basilica rang out.

A woman clutching a rosary wiped away tears as the elderly Benedict passed. One of the hundreds of cardinals and bishops in their red and purple-sashed robes could also be seen tearing up.

Hordes of journalists, perched high up on the colonnades surrounding the Vatican, captured the historic moment.

Some journalists even applauded as the head of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics climbed a podium before raising both hands in his trademark greeting and delivering a speech in which he said God would not allow the Church to sink.

Silence fell across the packed square as he began to speak. Many bowed their heads in prayer, while others snapped photographs on tablets or smart phones.

"It's a historic moment. We're really pleased to have been able to attend, and to have such a good view! It's a once in a life-time experience," said Chris Banks, a 45-year old builder from Wales, in Rome on holiday with his wife.

"The air of excitement reminds me of the Palio horse race in Siena!"

Dave and Sharon Clark a retired couple from the United States who were queueing to get into the square, said they had asked their hotel to get them tickets but they were sold out so they had got up especially early to get a space standing.

"It's overwhelming, a special moment to share with everyone. I admire Benedict, but I hope the next pope will have the strength to unite the Church and help it grow again -- and bring back a bit of morality," Sharon said.

A member of a group of cheerful Capuchin friars from China, Romania and Italy wearing brown cassocks and trendy sunglasses said the German pope was "a father figure, who we'll miss very much, but who we wish well in his retirement."

"In today's society, when everyone's obsessed with power, his gesture is extremely powerful," said one friar, 33-year-old Albert.

"He is giving up his position as head -- just as St. Francis did -- but he will still be our spiritual leader."