POPE BENEDICT XVI has thanked his supporters for their "love and prayers" in his first public appearance since announcing his resignation as head of the Catholic Church on Monday (11Feb13).

The 85 year old leader, who was elected Pope in 2005, has confirmed he is retiring due to ill health and will leave his role on 28 February (13).

The pontiff stepped back into the spotlight on Wednesday (13Feb13) by addressing the crowds at a weekly audience at the Vatican, thanking them for their support and telling them his resignation was "for the good of the Church".

He said, "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. I did this (retired) in full liberty for the good of the Church."

Pope Benedict will later hold what is expected to be his last public Mass, to mark Christian festival Ash Wednesday (13Feb13), in St Peter's Basilica, a church in the grounds of Vatican City.

The pontiff had been scheduled to celebrate Ash Wednesday at a smaller church and lead a procession through the streets, but Vatican officials changed the location to St Peter's to accommodate the anticipated crowds.

Pope Benedict Xvi's resignation makes him the first head of the Catholic Church to step down in almost 600 years and a new election process will begin once he bows out.