Pope Benedict XVI has bid farewell at his final public mass before a capacity crowd at St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.

"Thank you. Now, let's return to prayer," the 85-year-old pontiff said on Wednesday, bringing an end to several minutes of applause that had clearly moved him.

In his last address, the pontiff condemned "religious hypocrisy" and called for an end to divisions, saying that "the face of the Church is sometimes marred by sins against the unity of the Church and divisions in the clergy", an apparent reference to the paedophilia or Vatileaks scandals plaguing the institution.

In an unusual gesture, bishops took off their mitres in a sign of respect and a few of them wept.

The mood inside St Peter's Basilica was sombre during the Mass, as if the weight of Benedict's decision and the finality of his pontificate had finally registered with the thousands of faithful present.

But the Basilica erupted in a rousing, minutes-long standing ovation as Benedict exited for the last time as pope, bringing tears to the eyes of some of his closest collaborators.

Pope Benedict XVI made his first public appearance since his shock resignation announcement earlier this week, asking thousands of cheering pilgrims at the Vatican to "keep praying for me".

The pope said he had made his decision "for the good of the church".

New pope

He was greeted amid chants of "Benedetto", his name in Italian, at his weekly audience in the Paul VI auditorium, with a prominent banner reading: "Thank You, Holiness."

The pontiff, the first to resign voluntarily in centuries, said he could feel the faithful's love "almost physically in these difficult days".

The mass is traditionally held in the Santa Sabina Church on Rome's Aventine Hill, but was moved to St Peter's Basilica out of respect for the outgoing pontiff and to accommodate the crowds.

Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, 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.

As rumours fly over front-runners for St Peter's throne, commentators have said age may be a key factor in selecting a new pope, with 117 cardinals eligible to vote for one of their peers.

Source: Agencies