Pope Benedict XVI held his last general audience at the Vatican on Wednesday, a day before he steps down from the papacy.

About 200,000 people turned out to bid farewell to the pontiff, who assured the faithful that his heart was "filled with thanksgiving to God who ever watches over his Church and her growth in faith and love."

The pope, who turns 86 in two months, announced on Feb. 11 that he planned to step down from the papacy on the last day of this month, becoming the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years.

"The decision I have made, after much prayer, is the fruit of a serene trust in God's will and a deep love of Christ's Church. I will continue to accompany the Church with my prayers, and I ask each of you to pray for me and for the new pope," Benedict XVI said.

The pope kept his blessing at the public audience brief.

"I commend all of you, with great affection, to his loving care, asking him to strengthen you in the hope which opens our hearts to the fullness of life that he alone can give. To you and your families, I impart my blessing. Thank you!" Benedict XVI said.

The pontiff will step down at 8:00 p.m. on Thursday and will take the title of pope emeritus.

The Vatican does not plan to hold any ceremony to mark the pope's departure, with the only sign that Benedict is no longer pontiff being the closing of the papal palace's doors by the Swiss Guards.

The papal conclave to elect the successor to Pope Benedict XVI is expected to start in the next few weeks.

Under the Holy See's constitution, the conclave should begin between 15 and 20 days after the papacy becomes vacant to give time for all of the cardinals to arrive in Rome.

The pope will travel on Thursday to the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, some 30 kilometers (18 miles) from Rome, and will stay there until restoration work has been completed on a monastery within the Vatican that will serve as his retirement home, the Vatican Press Office said earlier this month. EFE