Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday thanked Catholics for their "love and prayer" and asked them to "keep praying for me", saying he had decided to resign "for the good of the Church".
"Thank you for the love and prayer with which you have accompanied me... Keep praying for me, for the Church and for the future pope," he told thousands of pilgrims at his weekly Vatican audience.
Pope Benedict XVI made his first public appearance on Wednesday since his shock resignation announcement, asking thousands of cheering pilgrims at the Vatican to "keep praying for me".
The 85-year-old pontiff was greeted by a standing ovation and chants of "Benedetto", his name in Italian, at his weekly audience in the Paul VI auditorium, with a prominent banner reading "Thank You, Holiness".
Benedict, looking drawn and tired but appearing relieved to have put the momentous announcement behind him, said he had made his decision "for the good of the Church" adding: "Keep praying for me, for the Church and for the future pope."
Wearing his workaday white cassock and skullcap, the pontiff -- the first to resign voluntarily in 700 years -- said he could feel the faithful's love "almost physically in these difficult days".
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi has said he expects a new pope in place in time for Easter, which falls on March 31 this year, although no date has yet been set for the secret conclave to elect a new leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
Meanwhile, Cardinal Peter Appiah Turkson of Ghana, one of two Africans considered eligible to replace retiring Pope says the world may be ready for an African pope.
"Let God's will be done," Turkson told the Rome daily Il Messaggero in an interview published Wednesday.
"The Church has followers everywhere," said the 64-year-old prelate who heads the Vatican's justice and peace department.
"Africa certainly is an important continent for Catholicism, but so is Asia for example," he added. "The Church is synonymous with universality... God's will should be done."
Turkson is considered progressive by supporters, but some say his decision to show a recent meeting of bishops a video criticising Muslims has damaged his chances.
Other Africans tipped are Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the 74-year-old Archbishop of Kinshasa, and Nigerian John Onaiyekan, 69, the Abuja archbishop.
Cardinal Francis Arinze, also from Nigeria, was considered a possibility when Benedict was elected, but he is now 80 and out of the running.
Onaiyekan, nominated as a cardinal in October, has made efforts to foster unity between Christians and Muslims in his country.
The 2,000-year-old Church has had three previous popes from Africa, the last dating from the fifth century when the Roman Empire included the northern part of the continent. AFP