VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI has left the building.
Shortly after 5 p.m. in Rome, the outgoing pontiff boarded a helicopter at the Vatican and flew to a summer retreat south of the city to spend the final hours of his papacy and the first few weeks of his retirement.
The courtyard at the Vatican was lined with clapping well-wishers, church officials and the plume-hatted Swiss Guards, the pope’s protectors, as Benedict left the papal apartment for the last time. On the Vatican’s helipad, he raised his arms in farewell, still wearing his white papal vestments, and the chopper lifted off into blue skies. The bells of St. Peter’s Basilica pealed during the departure.
Benedict remains the leader of the Roman Catholic Church until 8 p.m. local time (11 a.m. PST), but in effect he has already begun the contemplative seclusion he mapped out for himself when he made the surprise announcement this month that he would resign.
Earlier Thursday, he pledged his “unconditional reverence and obedience” to his successor during a farewell ceremony with the cardinals who will elect the new pope. The remark was apparently made to allay any fears of a divided church faced with the almost unprecedented situation of a reigning pope and a retired pope living within the Vatican walls.
In the town of Castel Gandolfo, dignitaries awaited the arrival of the soon-to-be “pope emeritus,” Benedict’s title in retirement. He will spend the next few weeks in the splendor of the papal summer residence there, a sprawling estate that boasts views across open countryside to the Mediterranean Sea.
Sometime after his successor is picked, Benedict is expected to move into a monastery in the Vatican Gardens that is being renovated for his use.
Bidding goodbye to the cardinals Thursday morning, the pope said he would pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit as they prepared to elect a new pontiff, and he pledged his allegiance to whoever it may be.
“Among you is ... the future pope, to whom I promise my unconditional reverence and obedience,” he said in the beautifully frescoed Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace.
He urged the cardinals to deepen their unity, though critics say that the Vatican is beset with infighting and rivalry.