In the early evening hours Thursday, in the hills overlooking the blue water of Lake Albano, Benedict XVI ceased to be pope.
Benedict emerged from a sedan outside the gorgeous papal summer residence known as Castel Gandolofo and was led inside slowly. The Swiss Guards in their 15th-century uniforms closed the doors of the villa behind him. At 8 pm., his resignation was official.
In a final statement to the public as pope, he said on Twitter, "Thank you for your love and support. May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the (center) of your lives."
The Vatican could announce the dates of the conclave that will select Benedict's successor as soon as today. He will remain at Gandolfo until renovations are completed for a residence on Vatican grounds where he plans to spends his days writing, reading and praying while a new pope leads the world's more than 1billion Roman Catholics.
Just before he left the Vatican for the last time shortly before 5 p.m., he told his cardinals he would give "unconditional reverence and obedience" to his successor.
Benedict, the first pontiff in 600 years to resign, cited age and poor health in his decision. He is nearly 86 and spent eight years as pope. Thousands waited at St. Peter's Square to see him off.
"It's a difficult time for the church and a difficult time for Benedict, and he has said he feels too weak to do what must be done," said Rosemarie Acot, a Philippine nun who said she prays in St. Peter's Basilica most mornings.
I'm sad, but we shouldn't be sad," said Chiara Bivet, 26, a speech therapist from Pisa. "It's a courageous choice to resign. The church will emerge stronger from this."
Benedict urged his cardinals Thursday to work in unity so the College of Cardinals is "like an orchestra" where "agreement and harmony" can be reached -- a clear message to the conclave that will pick the next pope. He said he would pray for the cardinals in coming days and weeks as they choose his successor.
Benedict issued a warning about the lack of privacy that would come along with the position. His successor, Benedict said, "will no longer have any privacy. He will belong forever and totally to everyone and to all the church."
Some Vatican historians wondered how Benedict's tenure would be viewed in the years ahead. He was named pope after the death of the popular and gregarious Pope John Paul II and inherited a church grappling with sex abuse scandals and demands from liberals that the faith adapt to modern times on human sexuality, marriage and sin.
He instead charted toward the core values of the church, insisting the clergy and religious orders hold firm on abortion as a grave sin and marriage as a natural union between men and women only. He made the freedom to practice religion, including Christianity in the Muslim world, a signature issue.
A significant theme of his papacy was the relationship between morality and modernism, in which he insisted that the pursuit of innovation must come with questions about the rightness of such pursuits, one example being the attempts to use human embryos for medical treatments.
He denounced the scandal of priest pedophilia in the USA, Ireland and Germany as a "scourge" but was criticized for not doing enough to expose the crimes. Under his papacy, administrative problems festered, such as financial crimes within the Vatican Bank.
"I have never met anyone who didn't see Benedict as a holy man and an effective spiritual leader," said Alistair Sear, a Rome-based church historian. "The question is whether these lapses in other areas, whether these likely failures as an administrator will be what he is ultimately remembered for."
After the pope boarded an Italian government helicopter for Castel Gandolfo, the Vatican's bells chimed. Minutes later, he greeted a crowd from the castle's balcony.
"This day brings me great joy. I feel very fortunate," he said. "Let us continue to go forward. Thank you. I impart my blessing. Thank you, and good evening."
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, spokesman for the Vatican, said there would be no problem having an ex-pope in the picture when a new pope takes over. "As every member of the church, he says fully that he recognizes the authority of the supreme pastor of the church who will be elected to succeed him," he said.
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