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The pope thanked the cardinals, some 70 of whom sat near him in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, and who are expected to begin meeting March 4 to plan the election of the next pope. Pope Benedict also voiced his gratitude to other members of the hierarchy, the Vatican diplomatic corps and “all those who work for good communication,” a category presumably including the press.

Pope Benedict acknowledged messages he had received over the preceding two weeks from heads of state, religious leaders and other dignitaries. But he made special mention of letters from “simple people,” who he said had written to him not as to a “prince or a great man whom they do not know,” but as “brothers and sisters or sons and daughters.” The pope called their expressions of affection and solidarity “reason for joy at a time when so many speak of the (church’s) decline, but we see how the church is alive today.”

The conclusion of the pope’s talk set off a two-minute standing ovation, which he acknowledged by smiling broadly and standing with outstretched arms.

According to the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the pope’s speech was the last of his pontificate. No papal address was expected at his farewell meeting with cardinals scheduled for the next day.

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The audience was also the last opportunity for large numbers of the public to see the pope in person before his resignation was to take effect at 8 p.m. Feb. 28. He was expected to greet several thousand people that evening in the small town square of Castel Gandolfo, 15 miles southeast of Rome, in front of the papal summer residence where he will live until the end of renovations at his permanent home in Vatican City.

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