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'Thank you for your friendship': Benedict leaves Vatican for final time as pope

In a dramatic exit from the Vatican, Pope Benedict flew off to the papal retreat Castel Gandolfo. Tourists gathered in St. Peter's Square to watch the momentous occasion. NBC's Anne Thompson reports.

To a chorus of bells and a ripple of applause from his closest advisers, Pope Benedict XVI departed the Vatican for the last time as pontiff Thursday.

He emerged from the Apostolic Palace and was saluted by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, and other senior staff members in the St. Damaso Courtyard before being driven to his helicopter for the journey to his lavish temporary residence.


A crowd of well-wishers was waiting to greet him from the piazza when he arrived by helicopter at his temporary residence at Castel Gandolfo, which is about 20 miles south-east of Rome.

They chanted his name in Italian and cheered wildly as he appeared from the balcony of the building. Some were moved to tears.

"Thank you for your friendship," he said. "I am just a pilgrim."

To coincide with his 5 p.m. local time (11 a.m ET) departure, a final message was posted to the pontiff's official Twitter account.

"Thank you for your love and support," it said. "May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the centre of your lives."

Although the pope has a helicopter pilot’s licence, the chopper was flown by an Italian air force pilot, as is customary.

Thousands of faithful pack the medieval square outside Castel Gandolfo in Lazio, Italy, to greet Pope Benedict XVI and thank him for his papacy as he settles into his new surroundings.

Due to join the pontiff on the 15-minute flight were his personal secretaries Archbishop Georg Ganswein and Monsignor Alfred Xuereb, along with Monsignor Leonardo Sapienza, the deputy prefect of the papal household, Professor Patrizio Polisca who is the pope's personal physician, and Sandro Mariotti, the pope's butler.

It was a quiet departure, characteristic of his shy demeanor, giving little hint of the historical significance of the event — the first of its kind for almost six centuries.

Earlier, he said a muted goodbye to his cardinals and closest advisers.

"I will continue to be close to you," he told them in the Vatican's 16th century Sala Clementina, before exchanging individual, private greetings.

"The future pope is among you," the pontiff added, pledging his "unconditional reverence and obedience" to his successor.

He also expressed a desire for the church to work like an orchestra where diverse elements came together in harmony — yet another reference to his frustration over infighting at the top of the church.

 

As the final day of Pope Benedict XVI's papacy comes to a close, focus turns to the cardinals entrusted to elect the next leader of the church. NBC's Anne Thompson reports on the upcoming conclave and the centuries-old tradition of a secret vote.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, was among 11 cardinals from the United States bidding him farewell on his final day as pontiff.

"It was kind of somber for me," Dolan told TODAY. "To see this gentle, learned, loving holy man, to see him very fragile, to see him having made what I consider to be a remarkably humble and courageous decision, it was very moving, it was a very tender moment."

"I was honored that he remembered my name — it’s always good when the boss knows your name," he added.

When the doors of Castel Gandolfo closed shorlty after 8 p.m. local time Friday (2 p.m. ET) it marked the end of his papacy — a resignation instead of a death. The distinctive Swiss Guards in attendance went off duty.

The pontiff, who will now be known as pope emeritus, will remain at the papal summer residence for two months until his permanent home in a monastery within the Vatican is refurbished.

'A caring pastor'
NBC News Vatican expert George Weigel said Benedict would be remembered as "the greatest papal preacher since Gregory the Great in the 6th century" and "a caring pastor."

Almost eight years after the death of John Paul II, it's clear Catholics still feel a special affection for the man often called "the people's pope," who was renowned for his compassion and support of human rights. NBC's Savannah Guthrie reports.

Father John Bartunek, a priest and author who works in Rome, added: "One of the characteristics that has struck us is personal humility and sincerity. He has a certain sweetness and openness and he’s always present, always willing to listen and that will also be part of his legacy."

"A lot of the repercussions of his decisions won’t be seen right away," he said.

Thursday's goodbyes were in stark contrast to Wednesday's public event, where a crowd of more than 100,000 cheered, applauded and waved banners of support as he delivered his final audience at a packed St. Peter's Square.

He assured pilgrims and well-wishers that he was not "coming down from the cross" despite renouncing his office, saying his decision was taken "in full awareness of its gravity and rarity but also with profound serenity of spirit."

An introverted theologian, Benedict 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 for letting the Vatican bureaucracy run amok.

Vatican watchers say there is no clear front-runner to replace him and Benedict's legacy will loom large as they look to the future.

A Vatican spokesman told the Catholic News Service that 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.

Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images

The pope delivers his final audience in St. Peter's Square as he prepares to stand down.

Under 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 the Vatican guesthouse, where the cardinals will stay during the conclave, must be swept for listening devices before they can move in.

The length of the conclave — with its four secret ballots a day, cast in the Sistine Chapel — is anyone's guess; it took two days to elect Benedict and three to choose his predecessor, John Paul II.

Dolan, who will be in the conclave, said: "There’s a mixed feeling. You hear cardinals say there is a sense of wanting a new pope as soon as possible, and for that to happen in the most prudent way you need some time for reflection and prayer to get to know each other. But the  first item on the agenda at the general congregations next week will be 'When well we begin the conclave?'"

Meanwhile, the Vatican announced on Thursday that a 92-year-old French cardinal, Jean Honoré, died on Wednesday. Because of his age, he was not among the 117 cardinals eligible to take part in the conclave.

NBC News' Tracy Connor contributed to this report.

Related:

Inside Castel Gandolfo, Pope Benedict's spectacular temporary retirement home

'Amateur hour': Vatican conclave drama is one for the history books, experts say

Inside the Vatican: The $8 billion global institution where nuns answer the phones

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