Pope Benedict XVI blesses faithful at the end of his weekly general audience on February 13, 2013 at the Paul VI hall at the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI made his first public appearance Wednesday since the shock announcement of his resignation, sticking with his schedule by presiding over his weekly general audience. (FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY - Catholics in St. Peter's Square were emotionally overcome on this Ash Wednesday after Pope Benedict XVI told thousands of faithful that he was resigning for "the good of the church."
"Today was the first time and probably the last time I saw Pope Benedict in real life, said Annalaura Orsini, 29, a student from Umbria, who was among those in the attendance. "I don't think the story was true when I first heard it.
"Now I feel sad for his suffering."
Thousands of people arrived at St. Peter's Basilica to hear the pope's traditional Wednesday lesson on church doctrine and gave the the 85-year-old Benedict a standing ovation. Many in the audience had tears in their eyes.
A huge banner reading "Grazie Santita" (Thank you Your Holiness) was strung up at the back of the room.
Speaking softly in Italian, Benedict thanked people for their prayers, saying he had "physically felt (them) in these days that haven't been easy for me." He asked that the faithful "continue to pray for me, the church, and the future pope."
RELATED | Experts' top 5 picks for next pope
On his decision Monday to resign on Feb. 28 after eight years as pope, he said: "I did this in full liberty for the good of the church."
Benedict sent out a tweet that did not discuss his resignation but talked of the Catholic season of Lent, a time of repentance that begins with Ash Wednesday leading up to Easter Sunday.
"During the season of Lent which begins today, we renew our commitment to the path of conversion, making more room for God in our lives," the pope tweeted to the more than 1.5 million followers of his @Pontifex handle.
Enza Priori, 55, a high school history teacher, was surrounded by students she had brought to St. Peter's.
"This is history and I told the students it was something they should see. We arrived at the very end of the blessing and went in to tour the basilica after. It was emotional to come today."
One of the pupils, Gianmarco, 16, said: "One day I'll tell my children I was here."
Spending 10 days in Rome with a group of friends, Milly Anderson-Zellars from Grand Rapids Mich., said she understood the pope's decision.
"The poor man. I'm almost his age," said the 79-year-old retired store owner and widow. "I know every day can be hard. I hope he doesn't suffer too much. It broke my heart to see the previous one, John Paul, suffer every day.
"What a holy and dignified man. God bless him."
At his catechism lesson earlier in the day, a chorus of Italian schoolchildren sang Benedict a hymn in German and nuns waved papal flags. Benedict, a native of Bavaria, thanked them for singing a hymn "particularly dear to me."
The Rev. Reinaldo Braga Jr., a Brazilian priest studying theology in Rome, said he was saddened when he first heard the news.
"The atmosphere was funereal but nobody had died," he said. "But then I realized it was a wise act for the entire church. He taught the church and the world that the papacy is not about power but about service."
Benedict was the oldest pope to be appointed since Clement XII in 1730 when he was elected in April 2005. He is the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years, effective Feb. 28. A conclave of the church's 117 cardinals under age 80 will be held to appoint a new pope. The Vatican said a decision should be reached before Easter.
BBC television reported, citing Reuters, that the conclave -- the process by which the next pope is chosen -- will begin in the week after March 15.
The Vatican said no serious medical ailment was behind Benedict's decision to retire. He has had a pacemaker for years and has appeared frail and unsteady at recent Masses.
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said Benedict's final official acts as pope will include audiences with the Romanian and Guatemalan presidents this week and the Italian president on Feb. 23.
He intends to live a life of prayer in a converted monastery on the far northern edge of the Vatican gardens, the Vatican said. Benedict's final general audience appearance will be Feb. 27 and may draw great crowds.