WITH a plea for unity and a vow of obedience to the Church he has presided over for eight years, Pope Benedict XVI last night bade farewell to his flock to begin a new life as a pilgrim “about to start the last trip of his journey on this Earth”.
On a day of high emotion and rich symbolism, the departing pontiff used his last public appearance before his historic resignation to vow to “work for the common good and for the good of the Church.”
Hours earlier, the 85-year-old gathered his cardinals to express his hopes for a unifying legacy, having overseen one of the most tumultuous and divisive periods in the Catholic Church’s history.
They should, he said, “work like an orchestra” so that the Church “always works towards a higher and harmonious agreement.”
It was a tune he first played during his inaugural general audience as pope on 27 April, 2005, when he spoke of “placing my ministry in the service of reconciliation and harmony”.
The willing theologian but reluctant chief executive left the Vatican for good at 3:55pm, emerging into the San Damaso courtyard, greeting monsignors, nuns, Vatican staff and Swiss guards, before getting into a car.
Ten minutes later, with his closest aide, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, weeping by his side, Benedict took off by helicopter from a hill in the Vatican gardens. The white Italian Air Force craft circled St Peter’s Square to the pealing of bells, before making the 20-minute journey to Castel Gandolfo.
At the same time, he delivered his final message to his 1.6 million followers on Twitter. “Thank you for your love and support,” it read. “May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the centre of your lives.”
As he arrived at the scenic town that will be home for the next two months until he moves to a renovated monastery behind St Peter’s Basilica, several thousand people welcomed him, swirling yellow and white paper pennants in its small piazza. “Benedetto!” the crowd chanted.
Shortly after 4:30pm, he entered the sumptuous villa which has been a summer retreat for pontiffs for almost four centuries. Moments later, he took to the balcony as the sun began to set, waving to his faithful, before delivering a simple message.
He told them: “You know that today is a different day for me. I’m going to become simply a pilgrim, about to start the last trip on his journey on this Earth.
“I would also like, with my heart, with my prayers, with my reflection and my inner strength, to work for the common good and for the good of the Church, and I feel supported by your affection. Let’s go forward with God for the good of the Church and the world.”
Surveying those before him, he added: “A heartfelt thank you. I bless you. May God bless you all in the name of the Father and the Holy Ghost. Thank you and goodnight.”
With that, he stepped away from view at 4:40pm. After seven years, ten months and nine days, during which time he created 90 cardinals and proclaimed 44 saints, those in the square and millions watching around the world came to realise it was the final public appearance of Benedict’s pontificate.
At 7pm, his resignation became official. It concluded a day which, like Benedict’s entire papacy, began with a desire to bring harmony to the Church.
The German-born pontiff – the first to resign since Gregory XII in 1415 – had gathered his cardinals in the Apostolic Palace’s marbled and frescoed Clementine Hall.
Giving a final set of instructions to those who will participate in the papal conclave, he said: “May the College of Cardinals work like an orchestra, where diversity… always works towards a higher and harmonious agreement. Among you is also the future pope, whom I today promise my unconditional reverence and obedience.”
Now known as Benedict XVI, emeritus pope, he will wear a simple white cassock.
His efforts at healing divisions in the Church did not, however, stop some from reiterating their fears at what the resignation could mean. George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, suggested the move might set a precedent.
It is one of many challenges that will greet the man who will become the 266th pope. For the white-haired octogenarian who led the Catholic Church during one of the most troubled times in its two-millennia history, now is a time of quiet contemplation.
Frontrunners in the race to succeed Benedict
CARDINAL MARC OUELLET, 68, the Canadian head of the Vatican’s office for bishops. Archbishop of Quebec between 2003 and 2010, he spent ten years as a missionary priest in Colombia and is fluent in a range of languages.
CARDINAL GIANFRANCO RAVASI, 70, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture. A former academic theologian and biblical scholar, he is noted for encouraging dialogue between believers and non-believers.
CARDINAL LEONARDO SANDRI, 69, an Argentinian and prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches. A “consummate” Vatican insider and viewed as a pair of “safe hands”, he announced Pope John Paul II’s death to the world on 2 April, 2005, saying: “We all feel like orphans this evening.”
CARDINAL ODILO SCHERER, 63, Archbishop of São Paolo in Brazil. He is head of the largest diocese in the world’s largest Catholic country and spent several years working at the congregation for bishops at the Vatican. A German Brazilian by birth, he is seen as the strongest Latin American candidate.
CARDINAL CHRISTOPH SCHONBORN, 68, Archbishop of Vienna. An intellectual who studied under Pope Benedict. He is currently dealing with a rebellion in Austria by Catholics who are calling for reform of the Church.
CARDINAL ANGELO SCOLA, 71, Archbishop of Milan. He was said to have been “papabile” – a possible contender for pope – during the conclave to replace John Paul II in 2005.
CARDINAL LUIS TAGLE, 55, Archbishop of Manila, Philippines. Highly praised and described by Vatican commentator John Allen as a “genuine intellectual with a common touch”. He is seen as an outside chance to be elected, because he is considered young.
CARDINAL PETER TURKSON, 64, from Ghana, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Charismatic and approachable, Cardinal Turkson is a popular figure and would be the first pope from Africa since Gelasius I more than 1,500 years ago.