Big crowds gather for Benedict’s final papal audience

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ROME (CNN) — Throngs of Roman Catholic faithful flocked to St. Peter’s Square on Wednesday to hear the final public words of Pope Benedict XVI a day before he steps down and retreats into a life of seclusion.

Vatican officials said 50,000 tickets had been handed out for Benedict’s final general audience — but tens of thousands more are expected to witness the historic moment in person.

Those lucky enough to have tickets can watch from seats as the pope is driven around the square in his Popemobile to meet the faithful before he speaks from a balcony.

Others will be packed around the edges of the square and surrounding side streets, hoping to catch a final glimpse of the pontiff in the flesh.

Among the crowds are groups of pilgrims who’ve traveled to Rome for an occasion that will be of great emotional significance for many of the faithful.

The pope won’t give the usual brief personal greetings to people afterward but will meet delegations of heads of state in Vatican City later.

Benedict, who stunned the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics when he announced his resignation just over two weeks ago, will leave office at 8 p.m. local time Thursday.

At that point, a transition period will begin, as more than 100 cardinals gather in Rome to pick a successor in a secretive election known as a conclave.

The Vatican has been rewriting the rules to cope with an almost unprecedented situation — Benedict is the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years.

He will meet with the cardinals Wednesday and Thursday before being flown by helicopter to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo.

There, from a balcony, he will greet the crowds one last time before his resignation takes effect and the Swiss Guards, who by tradition protect the pope, ceremonially leave the residence’s gate.

More details were given Tuesday of how the 85-year-old’s life in retirement will play out.

He will keep the papal title Benedict XVI, rather than reverting to the name Joseph Ratzinger, and will be referred to as “his holiness,” Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said.

He will also go by the title his holiness “Pontiff emeritus” or “Pope emeritus.”

Living out of the public eye in a small monastery within Vatican City, Benedict will wear a simple white robe, without the papal red cape, and will swap his red shoes for brown ones. He is expected to devote his time to prayer and study.

Vatican officials have said they doesn’t anticipate any interference from Benedict as a new pope takes office.

Whoever his successor may be will have plenty on his plate, from allegations swirling in the Italian media that gay clergy may have made themselves vulnerable to blackmail by male prostitutes — a claim vehemently denied by the Vatican — to the festering issue of the Church’s handling of child abuse by priests.

Meanwhile, the cardinals who must elect the new pope are already gathering in Rome, Lombardi said.

The dean cardinal will on Friday summon the cardinals to a general congregation, Lombardi said. That could come as soon as Monday, although the date is not yet fixed.

The cardinals will then decide exactly when to hold the conclave, during which they vote for the new pontiff.

Special prayers will be said during the “sede vacante,” or empty seat, period, seeking guidance for the election of the new pope. The cardinals will lead the prayers.

After his resignation, Benedict — who cited the frailty of age as the reason he resigned — will no longer use the Fisherman’s Ring, the symbol of the pope, Lombardi said. The ring will be destroyed, along with Benedict’s papal seal, after his departure from office.