NEW: Pope injured himself on a trip, a Vatican spokesman says, but this had no health impact
The pontiff celebrated his last public papal Mass to mark Ash Wednesday
Cardinals are expected to hold a conclave to decide on a successor in mid-March
Benedict's decision to resign on February 28 shocked the Roman Catholic Church
Pope Benedict XVI addressed parish priests from the city of Rome on Thursday, in what is likely to be one of his final public appearances before his resignation from the papacy at the end of the month.
The meeting with the parish priests focused on Benedict’s experiences from the Second Vatican Council, in the 1960s, which examined the Roman Catholic Church’s relationship with the world.
Benedict, who was greeted by lengthy applause, said it was a “special moment” to sit before the clergy of Rome before his departure.
Benedict, 85, celebrated his last public papal Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica on Ash Wednesday, which marked the beginning of Lent.
He shocked the world Monday when he announced his intention to stand down on February 28, citing the frailty of old age.
He is the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years.
A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, did not deny Thursday that Benedict had had an accident on his March 2012 trip to Mexico, but said the injury had no effect on his health or his decision to resign.
Italian newspapers reported that the pope fell and hit his head against a bathroom sink during the trip.
Addressing the faithful Wednesday in his weekly general audience, Benedict said he was stepping down for the good of the Roman Catholic Church and thanked them for their prayers.
“In these days which have not been easy for me, I have felt almost physically the power of prayer – your prayers – which the love of the church has given me. Continue to pray for me, for the church and for the future pope,” he said.
Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone later thanked Benedict for his service.
“All of us have understood that it is precisely the deep love that your holiness has for God and the church which pushed you to this act,” he said.
Benedict will hold a final audience in Vatican City’s St. Peter’s Square on February 27, but the church is not planning a formal ceremony to mark the pope’s departure, Lombardi said Wednesday.
The pontiff, born Joseph Ratzinger, will first go to the pope’s summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, and then is likely to retire to a monastery and devote himself to a life of reflection and prayer, Lombardi said.
He won’t be involved in managing the church after his resignation.
The Vatican does not yet know exactly when cardinals will meet in a conclave to decide who will replace Benedict, but if all goes normally, it will probably start between March 15 and March 19, Lombardi said Wednesday.
He had previously said a new pope would be in place before Easter is celebrated at the end of March.
The last pope to step down before his death was Gregory XII, who in 1415 quit to end a civil war within the church in which more than one man claimed to be pope.
Pope’s resignation a new angle to a tough news beat
CNN’s Vatican analyst John Allen and Hada Messia reported from Rome, and Laura Smith-Spark wrote and reported from London.