In his final public prayer ceremony before he steps down, Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday reassured Catholics around the world that he would continue to serve the church even in his retirement.

Benedict, 85, told thousands of pilgrims, Romans and tourists that God is calling him to dedicate himself "even more to prayer and meditation," which he will do in a secluded monastery behind Vatican City's ancient walls.

"But this doesn't mean abandoning the church," Benedict said as he stood at the window of the Apostolic Palace.

“On the contrary, if God asks me, this is because I can continue to serve (the church) with the same dedication and the same love which I have tried to do so until now, but in a way more suitable to my age and to my strength."

Speaking in several languages, including English and French, Benedict thanked the throng of pilgrims and tourists for their affection.

A child in the crowd held up a sign, written in Italian, saying: "You are not alone, I'm with you." Other admirers held homemade signs, saying "Grazie."

Earlier this month, Benedict shocked the world with the announcement he will be stepping down, saying he no longer has the mental or physical strength to lead the Roman Catholic Church.

Sunday’s address was one of Benedict’s last public appearances as pontiff. On Wednesday, Benedict, the first pope in six centuries to step down, will hold his last general audience in St. Peter’s Square.

Thursday is his last day in office.

CTV’s Ben O’Hara Byrne, reporting from the Vatican City, said it is expected Benedict will make the decision on when the cardinals will gather to choose his successor on Monday.

According to the current rules, the earliest date possible is March 15 -- after a 15 to 20 day waiting period from when the papacy has become vacant has passed -- however, it is expected Benedict will move that date forward so there will be a new leader in time for Easter, O’Hara Byrne told CTV News Channel on Sunday.

Since the pope’s announcement there have been many discussions on who should lead the church.

Moira McQueen, the director of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute, told CTV News Channel Sunday that there needs to be an effort to bring young people back to the church.

“There has been such a bleeding of people away,” McQueen said. “But there [also] seems to be a real hunger, especially from young people, to have some kind of spiritual leadership the way John Paul II was able to.”

With a report from CTV’s Ben O’Hara Byrne and files from The Associated Press