By Sandra Birungi
At precisely 8:00pm (Rome time), Pope Benedict XVI officially ceased to be the Pope and will now be referred to as pope emeritus.
In the early hours of Thursday, Pope Benedict addressed 144 cardinals gathered in the Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace in a brief session. He thanked them for their support and pledging his “unconditional reverence and obedience” to the next pope. He then gave a blessing, and personally greeted each of the cardinals. The Vatican said he spent the last hours as pope having lunch and resting.
Late in the afternoon, he emerged from the Apostolic Palace with the help of a cane to a waiting car which took him to a waiting helicopter. Outside the palace, the crowd was large although not as enormous as that which went to hear him deliver his last speech as pope on Wednesday.
Benedict and a few of his closest aides climbed into the Italian Air Force helicopter for the flight to the town of Castel Gandolfo which is about 15 miles away. As the started to spin, and the Vatican bells chimed and sun begun to set. As his helicopter took off, the final tweet on the pope’s official account, @Pontifex, was issued saying, “Thank you for your love and support. May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the centre of your lives.” — Benedict XVI (@Pontifex) February 28, 2013
The account was to be shut down after his 39th tweet.
After arriving at Castel Gandolfo, he emerged and said, “Thank you for your friendship, for your affection. I will only be the supreme pontiff of the Catholic Church until 8 p.m. and then no longer. I will simply be a pilgrim who is starting the last phase of his pilgrimage on this earth.’ Thank you and good night, to everyone, thank you,” Benedict concluded.
Benedict is expected to spend about two months at the private retreat, surrounded by 135 acres of picturesque, private gardens, before moving into an apartment still being prepared in a convent within the Vatican campus walls.
At Castel Gandolfo, the Swiss Guards standing at attention shut the gates of the palazzo shortly after 8 p.m. (2 p.m. Eastern) — the exact moment Benedict’s resignation went into effect — symbolically closing the doors on a papacy whose legacy will be most marked by the way it ended — a resignation instead of a death.