Pope Benedict XVI holds on the pastoral staff at the end of the Ash Wednesday mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican.

Vatican City -

Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday admitted having gone through difficult times in the past, as he thanked the public support and prayers, in his first public appearance since announcing his resignation.

“I did this in full liberty for the good of the church, after praying for long and examining my conscience before God, fully aware of the gravity of such an act,” Benedict said during his weekly audience in the Vatican City.

Hours before he spoke, the faithful flocked to the audience hall, which was packed to capacity with 12 000 people.

On Monday, Benedict said he would resign at 8pm (19.00 GMT), February 28, citing advanced age and the strains of his job. The announcement stunned Catholics worldwide. It will be the first papal resignation in almost 600 years.

The German-born pontiff was elected on April 19, 2005.

Emphasising that the past few days had been “not easy,” Benedict said that prayers from the faithful had helped him “almost physically.” He was frequently interrupted by applause. People held up a banner that read: “Thank You, His Holiness.”

His brother, retired Catholic priest Georg Ratzinger, told the Spanish newspaper El Pais that the pope “mulled all the arguments, for and against, before resigning.”

Recent scandals - such as cases of child sexual abuse by the clergy and the VatiLeaks affair, which exposed alleged cronyism, corruption and scheming inside the Roman Curia - had “nothing to do” with it.

Church officials were making their wishes heard, however subtly, ahead of the election of a new pope.

Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer distanced himself on Wednesday from those calling for a Latin American or African pope to succeed the outgoing Benedict XVI.

“The pope's geographic origin is not an essential issue. The issue is to know whether he is fit to take the position,” Scherer told a press conference.

On Tuesday Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, archbishop emeritus of Brasilia, voiced the beliefs of many in the Roman Catholic Church, noting the “very strong sense of religiousness” in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

“On the other hand, Europe is living through a moment in which you have the historic monuments left, but there is no vocation. There is a real decrease in the number of faithful, something really worrying,” he told the daily O Estado de Sao Paulo in an interview.

Meanwhile a new president for the IOR, the Vatican bank at the centre of allegations of financial impropriety, will likely be appointed “in the coming days,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said at a news briefing.

On Tuesday, Lombardi said electronic payments had been restored in the Vatican after a deal was reached with a Swiss firm. The Bank of Italy blocked them in January out of lack of transparency concerns. The measure prevented tourists from using credit and debit cards.

In the afternoon, the pontiff appeared frail as he celebrated the two-hour Ash Wednesday Mass in a packed St Peter's Basilica. It marked the start of Lent - the period of prayer and repentance leading up to Easter.

“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,” he wrote on Twitter.

The Vatican's second-highest official, Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said at the end of the service there was “a veil of sadness over our hearts.”

A long round of applause, lasting several minutes, followed.

On his final day in office, Benedict will bid farewell to cardinals and leave for his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo by helicopter “at around 5pm,” Lombardi said.

Before quitting, the resigning pope will hold private audiences with Italian leaders. Outgoing premier Mario Monti is expected to visit on Saturday, while President Giorgio Napolitano will be received on February 23.

Benedict's decision to stay in Castel Gandolfo, on the outskirts of Rome, until the Vatican convent where he is expected to finally settle is restored, will prevent him from influencing the election of his successor, Lombardi said.

It is still unclear what Benedict's future title will be.

“At the moment we don't have an answer to this question ... I cannot and I should not say what we will call him,” the spokesman indicated.

Benedict's private secretary, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, is unlikely to follow him in retirement, he added. Over the years, Gaenswein has attracted a lot of media attention because of his good looks: last month he was on the front cover of Italy's Vanity Fair.

Cardinals could meet in a conclave to elect a new pope as soon as March 15, Lombardi said. According to him, Benedict timed his resignation so that the Catholic Church could have a new leader before Easter, which this year falls on March 31.

“I think the time has come” for a Latin American pope, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina told dpa in Madrid. “Fifty per cent of Catholicism in the world is in Latin America. I think that is a lot of weight.”

Perez Molina is due to meet Benedict on Saturday, during a visit scheduled before he announced his resignation.

Argentinian and Brazilian cardinals have been touted as successors. Other suggested candidates hail from the Philippines, Nigeria, Canada, United States, Austria and Italy. - Sapa-dpa