In front of rapt crowds, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of moments of struggle as well as joy Wednesday during his final public address from a stage set up in St. Peter's Square.
In an unusually personal message, he said there had been "many days of sunshine" but also "times when the water was rough ... and the Lord seemed to sleep."
But even as the church passes through stormy seas, God will "not let her sink," he added, in what was his final general audience before he steps down Thursday evening.
Those words will be seen by many as a comment on the series of child sex abuse scandals and corruption claims that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church in the course of his pontificate.
Benedict recounted how when he was asked to be pope eight years ago, he had prayed for God's guidance and had felt his presence "every day" since.
"It was a part of the journey of the church that has had moments of joy and light, but also moments that were not easy," he said.
Dressed all in white and looking serene, the pope used his last general audience to call for a renewal of faith and speak of his own spiritual journey through eight years as leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
Benedict thanked the cardinals, the clergy in Rome, Vatican officials and priests worldwide for their work, as well as their congregations, saying "the heart of a pope extends to the whole world."
Knowing his strength was fading, he had taken the step of resignation well aware of its gravity and novelty, but also "with a deep peace of mind," he said.
"Loving the church also means having the courage to make tough choices," he said, as he called on the faithful to pray for him and the new pope.
Benedict gave an insight into the life of the pontiff, describing it as without any kind of privacy, with his time devoted entirely to the church -- perhaps particularly difficult for a man known for his love of scholarship.
His life in retirement will be "simply a return to the private place. My decision is to forgo the exercise of active ministry, not revoke it. In order to return to private life, not to a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences and so on," he said.
As he finished, cheers erupted from the tens of thousands gathered in the square -- acknowledged by Benedict with an open-armed embrace.
'Support and love'
Vatican officials said 50,000 tickets had been handed out for Benedict's last general audience -- but authorities said they had prepared for as many as 200,000 people to show up to witness the historic moment in person.
Benedict, who spoke first in Italian, also gave greetings in French, German and English, among other languages, reflecting the church's global reach.
CNN iReporter Joel Camaya, a priest from the Philippines who is studying in Rome, said it was very moving to be among those gathered in the huge plaza.
Waves of applause rose up to meet Benedict, especially when he addressed the pilgrims in different languages. "I really felt all the support and all the love, the prayers, from those who were present," he said.
After the pope left, people's mood was festive, with many chatting or singing, Camaya said, but at the same time nostalgic because it's the last time they will hear Benedict speak.
"Especially for people who have got used coming here for the audience and for the (Sunday) Angelus, it's something to be missed," he said.
Those lucky enough to have tickets for the final audience listened from seats in front of St. Peter's Basilica. Among them were many of the Roman Catholic Church's senior clergy. Others packed around the edges of the square and surrounding side streets, hoping to catch a glimpse of the pontiff.
Among the crowds were groups of pilgrims who had traveled to Rome for the special occasion, as well as local residents and curious visitors keen to share in the moment.
Benedict arrived and left in his Popemobile, allowing him to pass close by many people in St. Peter's Square.
Standing in the glass-topped vehicle, flanked by security, he waved as he slowly made his way along pathways through the crowds. Some waved flags and banners as they stood under cold but clear skies.