Pope Benedict XVI leaves Vatican

Pope leaves      Pope Beadict XVI became the first pope in 600 years to resign, ending an eight-year pontificate.The last was Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 .The German pontiff, who was born Joseph Ratzinger, is expected eventually to retire to a monastery on a hill inside Vatican City.

As bells tolled, the Swiss Guards standing at attention in Castel Gandolfo shut the doors of the palazzo shortly after 2 p.m. EST today, symbolically closing out a papacy whose legacy will be most marked by the way it ended — a resignation instead of a death.

In a changing of the guard, the Swiss Guards in their yellow-and-blue striped uniforms handed over the responsibility of protecting him to Vatican police as some of the faithful outside shouted “Viva il papa!” — Long live the pope!

In his last general audience Wednesday, Benedict thanked more than 100,000 people gathered in St. Peter’s Square for their support and asked for their prayers.“I am simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this Earth.”

The pope’s journey into retirement began with an emotional send-off from the Vatican, with Swiss Guards in full regalia and prelates kneeling to kiss Pope Benedict’s papal ring one last time.

In his retirement, Pope Benedict will wear a simple white cassock rather than his papal clothes, and swap his famous red shoes – the colour is symbolic of the blood of the early Christian martyrs – for brown.

His “Fisherman’s Ring”, the special signet ring which contains the Pope’s name and is impressed to validate certain official documents, is expected to be destroyed along with the lead seal of the pontificate.

In his final public remarks as pope, he pledged to continue working for the good of the church in his retirement. He told a packed piazza from the palace balcony that, as of his retirement, “I am simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this Earth.”

An estimated 150,000 people packed into St Peter’s Square on Wednesday to hear him speak in his last address there. The Pope also reached out to the wider world electronically, sending a final tweet from his Twitter account, Pontifex: “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 day began with Benedict’s final audience with his cardinals, where he pledged his “unconditional reverence and obedience” to his successor, a poignant and powerful message that was utterly unexpected.

There is also a great deal of speculation over the process of the conclave, the process that will select the next pope. The Vatican is expected to announce the dates of the conclave as soon as Friday. And, already, the conventional wisdom is that the date the Vatican selects will have an impact on who is selected as the next pope.

Cardinals from around the world are gathering in the Vatican to vote on Pope Benedict’s successor.The conclave has to take place 15 days after a pope leaves office, but Pope Benedict  changed the rules so they can vote earlier. Since the Catholic’s Holy Week starts on March 24 and for a pope to lead the church before Easter, one has to be in office by March 17.

The college of cardinals, headed by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, is now in charge of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics until a new pope is elected.

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