A humble pilgrim again: Benedict bids farewell to his faithful flock
"Thank you and good night." After a spectacular helicopter ride over the terracotta rooftops of Rome, the winding Tiber River and the Colosseum, these were the words with which Benedict XVI brought to a dramatic end his eight-year papacy.
The 85-year-old German pontiff etched his place in history yesterday after becoming the first Pope since Celestine V in 1294 to willingly step down from the holy office, in a move likely to change the papacy forever.
When his white Italian air-force helicopter took off from the Vatican and, 21 minutes later, set down in the leafy grounds of Castel Gandolfo in the hills outside Rome, Benedict closed the final chapter of Continued on Page 10
CAPTION: Final blessing: Pope Benedict XVI in Rome yesterday a papacy marred by paedophile priest scandals and allegations of feuds and corruption within the Holy See.
"As you know, today is different to previous ones," he told an emotional, cheering crowd holding balloons and banners after he arrived in the small town of Castel Gandolfo, where the summer residence is located.He said he would soon become "simply be a pilgrim who is starting the last phase of his pilgrimage on this earth".
He then turned and went inside the villa, never to be seen again as pope. At 8pm, when his term of office ended, his papal ring was taken away and destroyed.
The arch-traditionalist broke centuries of precedent with his dramatic abdication, which shattered the convention by which only death brought a papacy to an end.
And even on his last day in office the controversy over this denouement continued with unusually forthright criticism of his decision to resign by a senior cardinal.
George Pell of Australia said Benedict's resignation set a disconcerting and potentially dangerous precedent for the church. "People who, for example, might disagree with a future pope, will mount a campaign to get him to resign," said Cardinal Pell (71), the archbishop of Sydney, who will take part in the conclave to elect a new pope, which is expected to start in the next two weeks.
Benedict's last day as the spiritual leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics began with his final meeting with 144 cardinals in which he told them he would pay "unconditional reverence and obedience" to his successor.
The Pope said he would pray for the cardinals in the coming days, as they gather together for meetings known as General Congregations, prior to beginning the secretive election process known as the conclave, which will take place beneath Michalengelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.
At 5pm, Benedict, looking tired and walking slowly with the aid of a cane, left the papal apartments for the last time and emerged into an internal courtyard of the Vatican.
He was then driven in a black Mercedes, its driver overcome with emotion and in tears, through the Vatican's landscaped grounds to a helipad in a corner of the tiny city state.
Saying farewell to members of his staff, cardinals and Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, he climbed into a white Italian air force helicopter as the sinking sun splashed golden light across the cupolas and rooftops of the Vatican.
As the bells of St Peter's rang out, the helicopter lifted into the winter sky and swooped low over the stone bridges, palaces, cobbled lanes and rooftop gardens of central Rome.
In television images that no tourism authority could have bettered, the helicopter swept over the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill – home of the Caesars – and then the Colosseum, where Christians were put to death 2,000 years ago.
The rotorblades clattered over the remains of aqueducts that once brought water to the imperial capital before landing in the grounds of Castel Gandolfo, a palazzo set on the knife-edge ridge of an extinct volcano in the hills south of Rome.
Benedict was driven in a cavalcade of black cars through the estate, past paddocks full of goats and cows, part of a tiny farm that produces milk, cheese and yogurt for the papal breakfast table. He entered a concealed elevator in a tower adjoining the castle, and appeared on the balcony over its main gate a few moments later.
Raising his arms in greeting to the few thousand well-wishers crammed into the piazza below, Benedict told them: "Dear friends, I'm happy to be with you, surrounded by the beauty of creation and your well-wishes, which do me such good. Thank you for your friendship, and your affection.
"You know this day is different for me than the preceding ones: I am no longer the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church, or I will be until eight o'clock this evening and then no more."
He said that from that moment he would be "simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this Earth". Tearful well-wishers chanted "Benedetto" and "Viva Il Papa", waving the yellow and white flags of the Vatican City State.
He finished his short address by telling the crowd: "Thank you, I now wholeheartedly impart my blessing. Blessed be God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thank you, and good night."
At 5.40pm he turned and stepped inside the castle. At 8pm, the Swiss Guard – his personal protectors who are stationed outside the main entrance to the 16th century palazzo – left their posts.
The guards closed the great wooden doors at Gandolfo and presented arms to three members of the Vatican Gendarmerie, in blue uniforms and white gloves.
And so the moment had come. Benedict's official title changed to Pope Emeritus. The infallibility of his word expired and the Seat of St Peter was "Sede Vacante", empty.