Pope arrives for final audience on resignation eve

Pope Benedict XVI toured St Peter's Square in his popemobile one last time Wednesday at the start of an audience in front of tens of thousands of pilgrims on the eve of his historic resignation as leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.

Pilgrims flocked to bid a final farewell to the frail 85-year-old, who abruptly cut short his pontificate eight years in by declaring he was too weak to keep up with the modern world.

"I have come in gratitude for everything he has done these past eight years," said Father Giulio, a 67-year-old priest from the Abruzzo region.

"Resigning is a powerful message for every Christian. He resigned without bitterness but instead in sweetness and serenity," he said.

One group of faithful held up a banner reading: "Benedict, we'll miss you!". Another sign said: "The pope is the heart of this city!"

This will be the pope's last major public outing.

There were more than 100,000 people in and around the famous Vatican plaza, where city authorities have installed metal detectors, deployed snipers on Vatican rooftops and set up field clinics.

The weekly audience, which is exceptionally being held in St Peter's Square because of the high numbers of pilgrims, is usually a mix of prayers and religious instruction from the pope.

The Vicar General of Rome, cardinal Agostino Vallini, said residents of the Italian capital would turn out in great numbers because they felt a special bond with the ageing pope.

"It it something our heart and our faith demands," Vallini told Vatican Radio ahead of the event.

"Rome likes the pope a lot and feels a special affection for him so it could not miss his last public act," he said.

Benedict will be the first pope to step down since the Middle Ages -- a break with Catholic tradition that has worried conservatives but kindled the hopes of Catholics around the world who want a breath of new life in the Church.

Rome has been gripped by speculation over what prompted Benedict to resign and who the leading candidates might be to replace him, as cardinals from around the world fly in ahead of the conclave to elect his successor.

Rumours and counter-rumours in the Italian media suggest cut-throat behind-the-scenes lobbying, prompting the Vatican to condemn what it has called "unacceptable pressure" to influence the papal election.

Campaign groups have also lobbied the Vatican to exclude two cardinals accused of covering up child sex abuse from the upcoming election conclave.

The Vatican has said Benedict will receive the title of "Roman pontiff emeritus" and can still be addressed as "Your Holiness" and wear the white papal cassock after he officially steps down at 1900 GMT on Thursday.

Just before that time, the Vatican said Benedict will be whisked off by helicopter to the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo near Rome where he will begin a life out of the public eye.

Benedict will wave from the residence's balcony one last time before retreating to a private chapel and, as he has said, a life "hidden from the world".

The shock of the resignation and its unprecedented nature in the Church's modern history has left the Vatican sometimes struggling to explain the implications and Benedict's future status -- from the banal to the theological.

The Vatican has said Benedict will lose his power of divine infallibility -- a sort of supreme authority in doctrinal matters -- as soon as he steps down.

The personalised gold Fisherman's Ring traditionally used to seal papal documents -- a key symbol of the office -- will also be destroyed by a cardinal, as is customary in Catholic tradition.

Benedict has said he will also swap his trademark red shoes for a brown pair given to him by artisans in Mexico during a trip last year.

Starting next week, cardinals from around the world will begin a series of meetings to decide what the priorities for the Catholic Church should be, set a start date for the conclave and consider possible candidates for pope.

The conclave -- a centuries-old tradition with an elaborate ritual -- is supposed to be held within 15 to 20 days of the death of the pope, but Benedict has given special dispensation for the cardinals to bring that date forward because the event will follow a resignation.

A total of 115 "cardinal electors" are scheduled to take part after one voter said he was too sick and another, British cardinal Keith O'Brien, said he would not be taking part after allegations emerged that he made unwanted advances towards priests in the 1980s.

dt/jz