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Pope In First Outing Since Resignation
The Pope has made his first appearance in public since the shock announcement of his resignation on Monday.
Benedict XVI received a lengthy standing ovation when he entered a packed audience hall in the Vatican, with applause from the audience, many of whom had tears in their eyes.
He repeated in Italian what he had told cardinals on Monday in Latin - that he simply did not have the strength to continue.
"I did this in full liberty for the good of the church," he said, asking supporters"to continue to pray for the pope and the church."
Later, the Pope will celebrate an Ash Wednesday mass in St Peter's Basilica, his last public mass and one of his last engagements as Pope.
The mass is traditionally held in the Santa Sabina Church on Rome's Aventine Hill.
On this occasion, however, it has been moved, out of respect for the outgoing pontiff and to accommodate the crowd of pilgrims who will want to mark the end of his eight-year rule - one of the shortest in the Church's modern history.
"It will be an important concelebration, and the last led by the Holy Father in San Pietro," Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said.
Key cardinals are expected to attend as the papal conclave begins gathering in Rome to elect the next head of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.
No date has yet been set for the secret conclave, which will meet in the Sistine Chapel under Michelangelo's famous ceiling frescoes, but it could come within days of Pope Benedict's resignation.
Father Lombardi says he expects a new pope to be in place in time for Easter, which falls on March 31 this year. Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone will govern the Church during the transition.
Candidates for the Vatican's top job will join bishops, monks, friars and pilgrims for the Ash Wednesday celebrations, during which the Pope anoints the foreheads of the faithful with ashes. The ceremony launches a period of penitence before Easter in the Christian calendar.
Pope Benedict's decision to step down - making him the first pontiff in 700 years to resign simply because he cannot carry on - sparked a flurry of rumours over his health, fed by revelations that he had had an operation to replace the batteries in his pacemaker three months ago.
Some observers saw his decision as a bid to avoid the fate of his predecessor John Paul II, whose drawn-out and debilitating illness was played out on the world's stage.
But Father Lombardi insisted: "The Pope is well and his soul is serene. He did not resign the pontificate because he is ill but because of the fragility that comes with old age."