Benedict XVI has become the first pope in 600 years to resign, ending an eight-year pontificate shaped by struggles to move the church past sex abuse scandals and to reawaken Christianity in an indifferent world.
The Swiss Guards standing at attention in Castel Gandolfo shut the gates of the palazzo shortly after 8 p.m. Thursday (2 p.m. EST), symbolically closing the doors on a papacy whose legacy will be most marked by the way it ended -- a resignation instead of a death.
In a final farewell to his cardinals as pope, Benedict tried to dispel concerns about the unprecedented future awaiting the Catholic Church, with one reigning and one retired pope living side-by-side. He pledged his "unconditional reverence and obedience" to his successor.
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Pope Benedict XVI has greeted the faithful for the last time as pope, telling well-wishers gathered at the Vatican's vacation retreat that he is beginning the final stage of his life as a "simple pilgrim," hours before he becomes the first pontiff in 600 years to resign.
Benedict arrived at Castel Gandolfo after an emotional sendoff from the Vatican, where his closest aide wept by his side as he bade farewell to Vatican officials gathered in the courtyard of the Apostolic Palace, Swiss Guards standing by at attention.
Bells tolled as he left the Vatican by helicopter and did a fly-by around St. Peter's Square. They tolled anew as he arrived in Castel Gandolfo, where the central piazza was jammed with people eager to capture the historic moment.
Pope Benedict XVI has promised "unconditional reverence and obedience" to his successor in his final greetings to cardinals before retiring.
Benedict urged his cardinals Thursday to work in unity so that the College of Cardinals is "like an orchestra" where "agreement and harmony" can be reached -- a clear message to the conclave that will pick the next pope.
He said he would pray for the cardinals in coming days and weeks as they choose his successor.
Around 5 p.m., Benedict will leave the palace for the last time as pontiff and fly to the papal retreat at Castel Gandolfo.
There, at 8 p.m. sharp, Benedict becomes the first pontiff in 600 years to resign. The doors of the palazzo will shut and the Swiss Guards will go off duty.