The day Benedict XVI's papacy ended

Benedict XVI waves to pilgrims at Castel Gandolfo (Photo: 28 February 2013)
Image caption Benedict XVI thanked the faithful for "your love and support"

In normal times, popes make their final exit from the Vatican in a coffin and - after a period of mourning - are laid to rest in the crypt of St Peter's Basilica as the great bells of the first church of Christendom boom out.

But not Pope Benedict XVI.

His nearly eight-year-long pontificate has ended not in death, but with a remarkable resignation.

The bells did toll briefly as the visibly diminished 85-year-old Pope Emeritus (meaning retired pontiff) - leaning on a black cane - left the Vatican for the last time in a white-painted Italian Air Force helicopter.

It soared into the air on a brisk, sunny winter's evening, taking off from the private helipad in a corner of the Vatican gardens.

After a couple of passes over Vatican City, the pilots headed for the papal villa at Castel Gandolfo in the Alban Hills.

Image caption There were some public displays of emotion during the pontiff's farewell appearance

Benedict then climbed out after a brief 15-minute flight and wished a brief goodnight and goodbye to crowds of local wellwishers, before he withdrew - supposedly for ever - from public life.

At precisely 20:00 local time (19:00 GMT) the doors of the papal villa clanged shut. A detachment of Swiss Guards guarding the Pope were dismissed by their officer and marched away.

A "Vacancy of the Holy See" has been officially declared.

The papacy ended on a very low key after Benedict promised during a final meeting with the cardinals - who will shortly elect his successor - to show "reverence and obedience" to the new head of the Church, from whichever continent or nation he may come.

Harmony plea

There were some public displays of emotion by former members of the papal staff: his chauffeur shed a few tears as the pontiff entered his Vatican limousine for the last time and a group of nuns also wept publicly - but Benedict himself remained dry-eyed.

He was clearly relieved that the world has now accepted the fact that his physical health has declined to a point where he cannot continue to carry on the heavy responsibilities of leading his Church.

He tweeted: "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 @Pontifex twitter account is now suspended until Benedict's successor decides whether or not he wants to follow the experiments made by Benedict into the world of social media.

The pontificate which has just ended has, however, already come under heavy criticism by some Catholic groups, and many outside the Church for its failure to deal with some of the most pressing issues facing the world's oldest international organisation at the beginning of the third Christian millennium.

Pope Benedict's last words on his final day in office - as he greeted one-by-one the cardinals - were a plea to work together in harmony.

Image caption The conclave is expected to start a series of meetings on Monday

Benedict, a classical music lover, urged them to seek to play in harmony, just like an orchestra - for the future good of the Catholic Church.

It was an unusual musical simile to offer to the more than 100 princes of the Church already present in Rome for the papal election.

Job description

The balloting is likely to be hard fought by different factions, each supporting either a European or a non-European, an Italian or a non-Italian future pope.

The battle lines are not yet clearly drawn.

It will be up to a daily series of meetings of cardinal electors - beginning on Monday - to draw up a job description for Benedict's successor, to decide on the qualities they are looking for and to ensure that they pick the best candidate for the difficult job of leading the Catholic Church during the next decade - and perhaps, for longer.

They will, as usual, call upon the Holy Spirit to guide them in their choice.

But basically the conclave is a political event. It has always been thus down the centuries.

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