Benedict XVI leaves Vatican on final day as Pope

The Pope left the Vatican in a motorcade before boarding a helicopter to the papal retreat

Pope Benedict XVI has left the Vatican on his final day as Pope, saying he "will simply be a pilgrim" starting his last journey on earth.

The 85-year-old pontiff was flown by helicopter to the papal retreat at Castel Gandolfo, near Rome.

At 20:00 local time (19:00 GMT) he will officially cease to be the Pope.

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.

He is the first pontiff in 600 years to step down.

Analysis

A cardinal, who was inside the Clementine Hall of the Vatican to take his leave of Pope Benedict, told me it was one of those moments one can only describe as "electric with emotion".

He said he felt "the gratitude, the appreciation and the love that was flowing between the Pope and the cardinals".

But another Vatican insider admitted that the next pope has to continue the work started by Benedict to counter sexual abuse by clergy.

"Speaking as a Catholic priest myself", he told me, "it's something that blights our Church, that affects our whole role as priests in the Church.

"It's clear that there's a long way to go before healing occurs and before the whole issue is consigned to the past."

'Pilgrim'

Church bells rang across the Vatican as Benedict boarded the helicopter shortly after 16:00.

Before that, applause rippled as the pontiff was greeted for the last time by top officials in the Curia - the administrative body that runs the Holy See.

The Pope landed at Castel Gandolfo, 15 miles (24km) south-east of the Italian capital, about 15 minutes later.

He then appeared at a window overlooking the public square in Castel Gandolfo to bless a cheering crowd.

"Thank you very much for your friendship," Benedict said.

"As of 20:00 (19:00 GMT) I'll no longer be a pontiff. I will simply be a pilgrim who is starting the last phase of his pilgrimage on this earth."

"Let's go forward with God for the good of the Church and the world."

In his final tweet, Benedict wrote: "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's formal resignation as Pope will be marked when the Swiss Guards at the gate of Castel Gandolfo march off for their return to the Vatican.

Pope Benedict XVl: "Thank you and good evening"

The German pontiff, who was born Joseph Ratzinger, will continue to be known as Benedict XVI, with the new title of "pope emeritus".

In his retirement, he will wear a simple white cassock rather than his papal clothes and swap his famous red shoes - the colour is symbolic of the blood of the early Christian martyrs - for brown.

His "Fisherman's Ring", the special signet ring which contains the Pope's name and is impressed to validate certain official documents, is expected to be destroyed along with the lead seal of the pontificate.

The long-time theologian is expected eventually to retire to a monastery on a hill inside Vatican City, with officials saying he will not be able intervene publicly in the papacy of his successor, though he may offer advice.

Castel Gandolfo retreat

Garden at Castel Gandolfo (20 Feb)
  • The traditional lakeside summer home of the popes is a picturesque "castle town" in the Alban hills, 15 miles (24km) south-east of Rome
  • The papal palace dates back to the 17th Century and its gardens occupy the site of a residence of the Roman Emperor Domitian
  • Benedict XVI is expected to spend two months resting in the residence as his successor at the Vatican is chosen and installed
  • He will have a staff of two secretaries and four women helpers, drawn from a Catholic lay organisation
  • Vatican police officers will guard the former pope, who loses his Swiss Guards when his resignation takes effect

His successor must focus on reforming the Vatican bureaucracy, which has often been overly hesitant to react to the various crises which have arisen during Benedict's papacy, the BBC's David Willey reports from the Vatican.

Beset by scandals

Earlier on Thursday, the Pope received the cardinals at the Vatican's Clementine Hall, warmly embracing Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who passed on best wishes on behalf of those gathered.

"Among you there is also the future pope to whom I promise my unconditional obedience and reverence," the pontiff said.

"The Church is a living being," he added, but it "also remains always the same".

In his public farewell speech on Wednesday, Benedict hinted at Vatican infighting.

His decision to resign has been openly criticised by Australia's top Catholic, Cardinal George Pell, who questioned his leadership skills.

The Church has been beset by scandals over sexual abuse by priests and leaked confidential documents revealing internal corruption and feuding.

An estimated 150,000 people packed into St Peter's Square on Wednesday to hear Benedict, resigning after seven years in office.

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