Benedict XVI steps down as pope

Benedict XVI steps down as pope

VATICAN CITY - Agence France-Presse
Benedict XVI steps down as pope

Pope Benedict XVI blesses faifthful for the last time upon arrival in Castel Gandolfo on February 28, 2013. Once he steps down later in the day, Pope Benedict XVI will begin his retirement in the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, a sumptuous villa outside Rome with ornamental gardens, breathtaking views and its own farm. AFP Photo

Benedict XVI became the first pope to resign in over 700 years on Thursday, waving a last goodbye to a tearful crowd of faithful and telling them he would be "a simple pilgrim" on life's last journey.

Swiss Guards wielding halberds 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.

The Vatican flag at the palace was lowered in a poignant end to a turbulent eight-year pontificate. "Long live the pope!" a crowd outside sang out as a clock chimed 8:00 pm (1900 GMT) -- 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," the pope 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.

In an emotional final day as leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, Benedict left the Vatican in a helicopter emblazoned with the papal insignia as priests and nuns cheered and applauded.

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.

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.

Church bells tolled to announce the arrival of the soon-to-be former pope in the lakeside mediaeval town of Castel Gandolfo, which has a special bond with the papacy going back to the 16th century.

"It means a huge amount to us that Benedict has chosen to say his final goodbyes here," said local gift shop saleswoman Patrizia Gasperini, 40.

In a last tweet sent from his @pontifex Twitter account just as he left the Vatican, the pope 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.

Benedict is only the second pope to resign in the Church's 2,000-year history, and in his final hours as pontiff he took the unprecedented step of pledging allegiance to his successor.

"Among you there is also the future pope to whom I promise my unconditional obedience and reverence," the pope said earlier on Thursday in final remarks to cardinals in an ornate Vatican hall. "Let the Lord reveal the one he has chosen," said the pope, as the 144 cardinals doffed their berettas and lined up to kiss the papal ring.

"We've grown to love him' -- "We have experienced, with faith, beautiful moments of radiant light together, as well as times with a few clouds in the sky," the pope told the cardinals -- who will have to elect the next pope in a conclave in the Sistine Chapel.  "Let us remain united, dear brothers," he said, after a pontificate often overshadowed by infighting at the Vatican and divisions between reformers and traditionalists in the Church.

The Vatican has said the former pope will live in Castel Gandolfo for the next two months before taking up permanent residence in an ex-convent on a hilltop in the Vatican grounds overlooking Rome.

The German pope his decision to step down on February 11, saying he no longer had the "strength of mind and body" required by a fast-changing world.

The news has captured massive media attention, with the Vatican saying that 3,641 journalists from 61 countries will cover the upcoming conclave -- on top of the regular Vatican press corps.

The ex-pontiff will now formally carry the new title of "Roman Pontiff Emeritus" or "pope emeritus" for short, although he will still be addressed as "Your Holiness Benedict XVI".

The only other pope who resigned by choice was Celestine V, a humble hermit who stepped down in 1294 after just a few months in office out of disgust with Vatican corruption and intrigue.

Once Benedict takes up residence inside the Vatican, the Church will be in the unprecedented situation of having a pope and his predecessor living within a stone's throw of each other.

Commenting on the new arrangement, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said that Benedict "has no intention of interfering in the positions, decisions or activities of his successor". Benedict has said he will live "hidden from the world" but the Vatican indicated he could provide "spiritual guidance" to the next pope.

Vatican analysts have suggested his sudden exit could set a precedent for ageing popes in the future, and many ordinary Catholics say a more youthful, pastoral figure could breathe new life into a Church struggling on many levels.

From Catholic reformers calling for women clergy and for an end to priestly celibacy, to growing secularism in the West and ongoing scandals over sexual abuses by paedophile priests going back decades, the next pope will have a tough agenda.

"It's a very emotional day," said Gasperini, the saleswoman in Castel Gandolfo, who named her eight-year-old daughter Benedetta in the pope's honour. "We've been privileged to see a different, more humane side to him over the years, and grown to love him," she said.