VATICAN CITY: Benedict XVI has become the first pope to resign in more than 700 years, waving a last goodbye to a tearful crowd of faithful and telling them he will be "a simple pilgrim" on life's last journey.
He spent his last day as Pope farewelling the cardinals - pledging ‘‘unconditional reverence and obedience’’ to the next pope - then his staff, and finally the villagers at Castel Gandolfo, the papal retreat near Rome.
He urged the cardinals to be like an orchestra harmonising for the good of the church. ‘‘Among you, among the College of Cardinals, is the future Pope to whom I already today pledge unconditional reverence and obedience,’’ Pope Benedict said.
In fact, the pope need not be chosen from among the cardinals, and some commentators have speculated that he might not be this time, but the last time a non-cardinal became pope was 1378.
Lobbying among the cardinals, which would have begun within moments of the Pope’s resignation announcement on February 13, can now intensify.
They begin meetings called ‘‘general congregations on Monday, at which cardinals older than 80 who cannot vote in the conclave can give their views. It allows cardinals, now drawn from around the world, to get to know each other, discuss priorities, and to lobby for preferred candidates.
The first decision will be the date the conclave begins. Normally it must be 15 to 20 days from the see becoming vacant, to allow cardinals time to gather, but Benedict made provision before he left to allow an earlier date, as most cardinals are already there.
Benedict’s final appointment, made hours before his departure, was Joseph Dinh Duc Cao to be an auxiliary bishop in Vietnam. The Vatican also announced his ‘‘prayer intentions’’ for March: ‘‘That respect for nature may grow with the awareness that all creation is God’s work entrusted to human responsibility.’’
Workers put seals on the doors of the Vatican papal apartments and the lift leading up to them, to be broken only by the church's next pope, and the Vatican flag at the palace was lowered in a poignant end to a turbulent eight-year pontificate.
Swiss Guards shut the giant wooden doors of his new temporary residence, the Castel Gandolfo near Rome, and left their posts after completing their mission to protect the Pope.
"Long live the Pope!" a crowd outside sang out as a clock chimed 8pm, the hour that Benedict said he would officially resign in an announcement earlier this month that stunned the world.
"I will no longer be pope but a simple pilgrim who is starting out on the last part of his pilgrimage," Benedict told thousands of supporters after arriving at the Castel Gandolfo palace, where he will live for the next few weeks.
"I am happy to be with you surrounded by the beauty of creation. Thank you for your friendship and affection," said the frail but smiling 85-year-old, dressed in his white papal cassock.
The bells of St Peter's Basilica rang out as Benedict's helicopter flew over his diocese of Rome for the last time in his pontificate, with city residents watching from their windows.
On his hand was the Fisherman's Ring - a personalised gold signet ring bearing the image of the first pope, St Peter, a fisherman by trade.
The ring will be disposed of by the Vatican - a tradition to prevent the official seal being used to issue false documents in a pope's name.
In a last tweet sent from his pontifex Twitter account just as he left the Vatican, Benedict said: "Thank you for your love and support."
"May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the centre of your lives."
The Twitter account will now be suspended until the election of a new pope in a conclave next month.
Vatican television showed Benedict's farewell, helicopter flight to Castel Gandolfo and last blessing as Pope. From a palace upper window he blessed the locals, and concluded: "Grazie, buona notte" (Thank you, good night).
With those three words ended the pontificate of the Catholic Church's 266th pope.