The first Pope in nearly 700 years to voluntarily step down, Pope Benedict spoke in front of his final audience Wednesday and will officially resign on Thursday at which point he will be known as pope emeritus. NBC's Anne Thompson reports.
A meeting with the red-clad “princes of the church.” A 10-minute helicopter ride to Castel Gandolfo. A quick wave from the balcony to throngs in a candlelit square.
That’s the script for Pope Benedict XVI’s final hours as spiritual leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Roman Catholics before his resignation becomes official at 8 p.m. Thursday -- ending an often rocky eight-year tenure and launching the church into a potentially contentious search for his replacement.
His farewell address has already happened – a speech Wednesday morning before a cheering crowd of more than 100,000 in front of St. Peter’s, where he acknowledged moments of great joy and difficulty and asked followers to pray for him in his retirement.
The spotlight will remain on Benedict, however, for at least another day before attention turns to the highly ritualized conclave that will choose his successor.
Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters
Cardinal Antonio Rouco Varela (3rd L) reacts while attending the last general audience of Pope Benedict XVI.
At 11 a.m. Thursday, Italian time, he is scheduled to meet the cardinals that have rushed to Rome for the historic event. Each will have the chance to say a few parting words to him, but a major speech is not expected.
The personal goodbyes will continue as he leaves the Apostolic Palace before 5 p.m. and is driven to the helipad, where Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, will see him off.
The 85-year-old pope knows how to fly a helicopter but presumably will rely on a pilot from the 13th Squadron of the Italian Air Force for the jaunt to the hilltop town where he will live in his summer residence for a few months while a monastery in the Vatican Gardens is prepared for him.
Town priests are planning a prayer vigil in Castel Gandolfo to begin a few hours before Benedict’s arrival, and he is likely to bestow a brief greeting on the thousands crammed into the town square, clutching rosaries and candles.
Once he leaves Rome, there will be only a few more hours in his papacy, which officially ends at the stroke of 8 p.m. Thursday. From that moment on, he will be known as pope emeritus, and aides say a life of quiet reflection will commence.
“I think we’ll probably catch some glimpses of him walking in the garden,” Vatican spokesman Greg Burke told NBC’s TODAY. “He’s not the kind of guy who is going on a book tour.”
At the Vatican, the Swiss Guards will go off duty – and the cardinals will be officially called back to work the next day with a formal announcement of what’s called the sede vacante, Latin for "the seat being vacant."
A Vatican spokesman told the Catholic News Service the college will probably not meet over the weekend but could gather the following Monday for informal talks to set a date for the conclave and begin talking about priorities for 266th pope.
Under old church law, the conclave couldn’t start until March 15, but an amendment this week will allow the cardinals to push up the date as along as all 115 electors are in place. There were supposed to be 117, but one is too sick to attend and another recused himself after being accused of inappropriate behavior with priests.
And, of course, the Vatican guesthouse where the cardinals will stay during the conclave must be swept for listening devices before they can move in for the duration.
The length of the conclave — with its four secret ballots a day, cast in the Sistine Chapel — is anyone's guess; it took just two days to elect Benedict and three to choose his predecessor, John Paul II.
Vatican watchers say there is no clear front-runner and Benedict's legacy will loom large as they look to the future.
An introverted theologian, he is credited with pushing the "new evangelization" and repairing rifts with Jews but faulted for not taking stronger action as a sex-abuse scandal tarnished the church's reputation and letting the Vatican bureaucracy run amok.
He alluded to the crises during Wednesday's address, saying he had often felt like "St. Peter with the Apostles in the boat on the Sea of Galilee."
"The Lord has given us many days of sunshine and gentle breeze, days in which the catch has been abundant," he said. "[But] there have been times when the seas were rough and the wind against us, as in the whole history of the Church it has ever been — and the Lord seemed to sleep."
Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images
The pope delivers his final audience in St. Peter's Square as he prepares to stand down.