Pope Benedict XVI left Vatican City Thursday for the last time as leader of the billion-member Roman Catholic Church, and he headed by helicopter to his summer residence where he is due to spend the last hours of his pontificate before stepping down.
When he arrives at Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer palace overlooking Lake Albano south of Rome, the pope is expected to greet a crowd of faithful and the local parish priest. Then, at 8 p.m., the pope’s resignation—the first of its kind in six centuries—will take effect. At that point, the seat of St. Peter will become officially vacant, paving the way for cardinals to convene in a secret conclave to elect a new pope.
Earlier Thursday, in Rome, the pope pledged obedience to his future successor. Meeting with cardinals for the last time inside the Apostolic Palace, Pope Benedict said he would remain with them “in prayer” after he steps down this evening.
“Among you, the College of Cardinals, is the future pope to whom I pledge today unconditional obedience and reverence,” the pope told the cardinals on Thursday.
At Castel Gandolfo, he is expected to greet a group of Roman Catholics and the local parish priest, marking the end of his pontificate.
The pontiff’s retirement thrusts the church into uncharted waters. A living pope hasn’t handed over power in 600 years, meaning the next pope will lead Roman Catholicism with his predecessor just a stone’s throw away. Pope Benedict, who is a prolific writer and respected theologian, has said he doesn’t expect to withdrawal completely from public life.
He will be known as “pope emeritus” and wear white vestments. He will also return to Vatican City once renovations are complete on his future residence: a former convent inside the Vatican’s medieval walls.
“We serve the Church and all of humanity. This is our joy. No one can take that away from us,” the pope told cardinals. The so-called “princes” of the church then lined up to individually bid him farewell.
Once the pope resigns, the ring that bears the seal of his authority will be broken. On Thursday the Vatican post office, which serves the world’s smallest state, began stamping letters with a new mark: Benedictus PP. XVI Renuntiat Ministero Petrino.