•Vacates Vatican official residence
Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday vacated the Vatican on his final day as Pope, pledging “unconditional obedience” and respect to whoever takes up the reins after his dramatic resignation. The 85-year-old pontiff was flown by helicopter to the papal retreat at Castel Gandolfo, near Rome. At 19:00 GMT on Thursday, he ceased to be the pontiff.
His deputy, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, will be in charge of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics until a new pope is elected next month. Earlier, Benedict met his cardinals, vowing “unconditional obedience and reverence” to his eventual successor. Church bells rang as the pontiff boarded the helicopter shortly after 16:00 local time.
Before that, applause rippled around the Vatican as the Pope was greeted for the last time by top officials in the Curia, the administrative body that runs the Holy See. In keeping with his shy and modest ways, there was no public ceremony to mark the first papal resignation in six centuries and no solemn declaration ending his nearly eight-year reign at the head of the world’s largest church.
His last day in office was carefully mapped out by Vatican aides who’ve had to make up the rules over the past two weeks. In contrast to the public focus of his final general audience and meetings with foreign dignitaries Wednesday, Benedict spent Thursday in a quiet, more intimate manner. Later, senior Vatican officials and a detachment of the Swiss Guards, who by tradition protect the pope gathered to bid him farewell as his helicopter took off from Vatican City bound for the summer papal residence, Castel Gandolfo.
Once at Castel Gandolfo, where he will spend the next few weeks before moving to a small monastery within the Vatican grounds, Benedict made one last public appearance on the balcony. He gave thanks to senior staff who have been by his side during his papacy before stepping out from his apartments for the last time.
As he bid the Vatican farewell, he tweeted: “Thank you for your love and support. May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the centre of your lives.” Benedict was driven to the Vatican helipad, where he boarded a helicopter and flew off into history to Castel Gandolfo in Lazio, the Pope’s summer residence on the outskirts of Rome. He is expected to spend the first two months of his retirement there, before he retreats from public life for good.
In keeping with his shy and modest ways, there was no public ceremony to mark the first papal resignation in six centuries and no solemn declaration ending his nearly eight-year reign at the head of the world’s largest church. Avoiding any special ceremony, Benedict used his weekly general audience on Wednesday to bid an emotional farewell to more than 150,000 people who packed St Peter’s Square to cheer for him and wave signs of support.
With a slight smile, his often stern-looking face seemed content and relaxed as he acknowledged the loud applause from the crowd. “Thank you, I am very moved,” he said in Italian. His unusually personal remarks included an admission that “there were moments … when the seas were rough and the wind blew against us and it seemed that the Lord was sleeping”.
“I will continue to serve you in prayer, in particular in the coming days,” he said, as they work to elect the new pope. Benedict told the cardinals it was a “joy to walk with you” during his nearly eight tumultuous years at the head of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Thomas Roscia said he believed 144 cardinals had attended Benedict XVI’s farewell to them as pope. That includes both cardinal-electors, who are under the age of 80, and cardinals who are not eligible to vote for the next pope. Not all the 115 cardinals eligible to vote were present, said another Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
Two cardinals are suffering ill health, making their attendance uncertain, although arrangements may be made to enable them to vote, Roscia said. The new pope is almost certain to come from within the cardinals’ ranks. In their meeting Thursday morning, the cardinals gave Benedict a standing ovation, and then one by one each met the pope to say a final few words.
When he returns to the Vatican to see out his days in prayer and meditation, he will no longer be Pope, but will be known as Emeritus Pope. He will move into the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery of cloistered nuns inside the Vatican. His resignation makes him the first Pope to stand down from the role in 600 years. Benedict, a bookish man who did not seek the papacy and did not enjoy the global glare it brought, proved to be an energetic teacher of Catholic doctrine but a poor manager of the Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy that became mired in scandal during his reign.
He leaves his successor a top secret report on rivalries and scandals within the Curia, prompted by leaks of internal files last year that documented the problems hidden behind the Vatican’s thick walls and the Church’s traditional secrecy.
Having both a retired and a serving pope at the same time proved such a novelty that the Vatican took nearly two weeks to decide his title and form of clerical dress. He will be known as the “pope emeritus,” wear a simple white cassock rather than his white papal clothes and retire his famous red “shoes of the fisherman,” a symbol of the blood of the early Christian martyrs, for more pedestrian brown ones.
With the chair of St Peter now vacant, cardinals who have assembled from around the world for Benedict’s farewell will begin planning the closed-door conclave that will elect his successor. One of the first questions facing these “princes of the Church” is when the 115 cardinal electors should enter the Sistine Chapel for the voting.
They will hold a first meeting on Friday but a decision may not come until next week. The Vatican seems to be aiming for an election by mid-March so the new pope can be installed in office before Palm Sunday on March 24 and lead the Holy Week services that culminate in Easter on the following Sunday. In the meantime, the cardinals will hold daily consultations at the Vatican at which they discuss issues facing the Church, get to know each other better and size up potential candidates for the 2,000-year-old post of pope. There are no official candidates, no open campaigning and no clear front runner for the job. Cardinals tipped as favorites by Vatican watchers include Brazil’s Odilo Scherer, Canadian Marc Ouellet, Ghanaian Peter Turkson, Italy’s Angelo Scola and Timothy Dolan of the United States. Cardinals are forbidden to communicate with the outside world now including by Twitter during the conclave, held within the Sistine Chapel.
The Vatican declined to say whether BlackBerrys, iPhones and laptops would be taken away from cardinals when they are in the conclave. There is no Internet access inside Santa Marta, where the cardinals will stay during the conclave, Lombardi said. Benedict sent his final tweet Thursday afternoon Rome time, and then the @Pontifex account went dormant until the next pope decides whether he wants to use it, Lombardi said.
Benedict, who will not be involved in the election, will not get any advance notice of who his successor will be, Roscia said. The pope emeritus will find out who has been elected at the same time as the rest of the world.