Amid a wave of controversy over the sexual conduct of Catholic male priests, Pope Benedict XVI has delivered his final message at the Vatican’s St Peter’s Square, before his resignation on Thursday.

“To love the church means also to have the courage to take difficult, painful decisions, always keeping the good of the church in mind, not oneself,” he said to loud applause.

“I took this step [resignation] in full awareness of its gravity and novelty but with profound serenity of spirit.”

He recalled that when he was elected pope on 19 April 2005, he questioned if God truly wanted it. “It’s a great burden that you’ve placed on my shoulders.”

He said his Papacy had faced joy, but also had undergone “difficult moments”. He said that during his time as head of the 1.2bn Catholics around the world, there had been “turbulent seas”.

Drawing on a Biblical analogy, he said: “The Lord gave us days of sun and of light breeze, days in which the fishing was good. There were also moments when there were stormy waters and headwinds.”

But, he said, God would not let the church “sink.”

He said he had resigned not for his own good, but for the good of the church.

Benedict XVI, who previously referred to gay people as a “defection of human nature”, announced his resignation on 11 February, citing a loss of mental and physical strength as his reason for stepping down.

Speculation arose last week after an Italian newspaper claimed that the decision was actually cemented by a report on a “gay lobby” within the Vatican. However, the Vatican denied the allegations.

On Monday, British Catholic journalist and former Dominican friar Mark Dowd claimed that at least “half” of “all the people attracted into seminaries in the priesthood are gay themselves.”

The Vatican has been left in a state of flux following the resignation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic, who has been accused of inappropriate behaviour with male priests.

The cardinal, who denied the allegations of inappropriate behaviour last weekend, will not take part in electing a new pope, leaving Britain unrepresented.

Meanwhile, the Pope’s resignation will take effect at 8pm local time in the Vatican City on Thursday.

Up to 200,000 people are expected to attend his historic final address, and crowds arrived in the early hours of the morning to claim a place in the square. 50,000 tickets were requested.

A Vatican spokesperson said that due to the large crowd size there would be no traditional kissing of the Pope’s hand to avoid leaving people disappointed, as “[Pope Benedict] doesn’t want to favour one or the other of the pilgrims.”

On Tuesday, it was clarified that he would be known as ‘pope emeritus’ after his abdication, and would retain the name Benedict XVI which replaced his birth name, Joseph Ratzinger, on his becoming pope.

The 85-year-old anti-gay Catholic leader became Pope Benedict XVI in April 2005 following the death of John Paul II.

Since assuming the top job in the Catholic Church, he has pursued a staunchly anti-gay doctrine.

In December 2012, Pope Benedict used his message for World Day of Peace 2013 to describe equal marriage as a threat to justice and peace, adding that it would spark harm for society. 

He has also been accused of failing to adequately address the HIV epidemic, having dismissed it as “above all an ethical problem”.

The sudden resignation has prompted a great deal of speculation about who his successor will be, and whether they will continue to pursue Benedict XVI’s anti-gay stance.

One of the bookies’ favourites is Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, who earlier this month claimed that there were fewer reports of child abuse within the Catholic Church in Africa because the culture “protected against” homosexuality.