Pope Benedict XVI was spending his last night in his Vatican apartments after bidding an emotional farewell Wednesday to some 150,000 pilgrims in St Peter's Square on the eve of his historic resignation.
The German pontiff was greeted with whoops, chants and cheers, and huge banners carried messages such as "Benedict, we'll miss you!" and "The pope is the heart of this city!"
In his speech, the 85-year-old spoke of "stormy waters" in an apparent reference to the multiple scandals that have plagued his reign, and said he had decided to resign for the good of the Roman Catholic Church.
"The Lord gave us days of sun and of light breeze, days in which the fishing was good. There were also moments when there were stormy waters and headwinds... as if God was sleeping," said the head of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
"But I always knew that God was in that boat and I always knew that the boat of the Church is not mine, is not ours, but is his and he will not let it sink," he said, adding: "I never felt alone."
The former Joseph Ratzinger stunned the world with his abrupt decision to end an eight-year reign dogged by scandal and Vatican infighting, declaring he was too weak to keep up with the modern world.
The scourge of paedophile priests and cover-ups by their superiors cast a dark shadow over Benedict's papacy, combined with a longstanding money-laundering scandal at the Vatican bank, which exposed infighting among Benedict's closest allies.
What observers said may have been the last straw was the scandal that came to be known as "Vatileaks", in which his trusted butler leaked secret papal memos revealing intrigues between rival groups of cardinals.
But Wednesday's crowds did not dwell on the scandals.
-- 'Resigning a powerful message' --
"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.
Benedict became the first pope to resign of his own free will since the Middle Ages.
The move has worried conservatives but kindled the hopes of Catholics around the world who want a successor who will breathe new life into the Church.
Sharon Clark, a tourist from the United States, told AFP: "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."
Later Wednesday the pope followed up his farewell speech with what the Vatican said would be one of his last messages on Twitter: "If only everyone could experience the joy of being Christian, being loved by God who gave his Son for us!" the pope wrote.
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.
Benedict will spend the first few weeks of his retirement at the summer papal residence of Castel Gandolfo outside Rome, where he will be taken by helicopter late Thursday afternoon.
There he will be well away from the preparations and consultations ahead of next month's secret conclave to elect his successor, but in due time he will return to the Vatican to take up residence in a disused convent.
Rome has been gripped by speculation over who the leading candidates might be to replace him -- the so-called "papabili" -- as cardinals from around the world fly in ahead of the conclave.
Rumours and counter-rumours in the Italian media suggest cloak-and-dagger 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 conclave of 115 "cardinal electors" -- after a third cardinal accused of sexual misconduct said he would not attend.
One of them, Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani of Peru, said he was confident they would elect a new pope before Holy Week, the event-laden run-up to Easter, Christendom's most important observance, on March 31.
"The coordination meetings have not begun and no decision has yet been made on when the conclave will be held, but I clearly expect that before Holy Week we will have among us a new holy father," he said.