Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI Reuters

Pope Benedict XVI bade farewell to tens of thousands of the faithful on Wednesday as he delivered his final public address from a balcony at S. Peter’s Square in Rome.

The leader of the Roman Catholic Church made history this month by announcing his resignation from office, the first pontiff to do so since the Middle Ages. 

This past Sunday, Benedict gave his blessing at the Vatican to another crowd of thousands who massed in order to hear his final public Sunday supplications.

“I would like to thank everyone for the help I have received,” the pope told those gathered in the square on Wednesday morning. “My heart is open to the world... I will continue to accompany the Church with my prayers.” 

Benedict officially steps down from his duties Thursday evening at 8:00 p.m. local time.

The Wednesday gatherings have been held weekly by the pontiff to teach about the Catholic faith; this week, 50,000 people requested tickets for Benedict’s final master class in S. Peter’s Square.

Benedict told the crowd that he was resigning for the good of the church, rather than for his own benefit, and thanked the faithful for their understanding. He has told reporters that in retirement he will pray and be “hidden to the world.”

The pope will continue to wear the white cassock, according to a Vatican spokesman, and will be referred to as “Your Holiness” or "Emeritus Pope.”

Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and other Israeli and Jewish leaders praised the pontiff after he shocked the world earlier this month by announcing his resignation, saying that through his warmth toward the Jews he helped counter anti-Semitism around the world.

For the Jewish community, one of Benedict's landmark achievements was his exoneration of the Jewish people from responsibility for the death of Jesus. In a book published in 2011, the pope wrote that those responsible for Jesus's crucifixion were the "aristocracy of the Temple" in Jerusalem and the "masses" -- not "the Jewish People as a whole."