CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy
As bells tolled and the clock struck 8, the brass-studded wooden doors swung shut Thursday at this palace in the Italian hills, marking an end to Benedict XVI’s papacy and the start of his final journey as a “simple pilgrim.”
Capping a day of tearful farewells that included an extraordinary pledge of obedience to his successor, Benedict entered history as the first pope in 600 years to resign — leaving the Catholic Church in unprecedented limbo and ending a pontificate shaped by struggles to move beyond clerical sex-abuse scandals and reawaken Christianity in an indifferent world.
On Benedict’s last day, the mood was vastly different inside the Vatican than at Castel Gandolfo, the 17th-century papal retreat set in the hills south of Rome, where he will spend the first two months of his retirement.
At the seat of the popes, Benedict’s staff bade the pontiff goodbye in scenes of dignified solemnity, with Swiss Guards in full regalia and prelates kneeling to kiss his papal ring one last time.
A livelier atmosphere reigned in the countryside, with well-wishers jamming the hilltop town’s main square, shouting “Viva il Papa!” and waving the yellow and white flags of the Holy See.
Cheers went up as the 85-year-old Benedict stepped out onto the palace balcony and, arms outstretched, declared his papacy was nearing the end.
“I am simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this Earth,” he said. Then giving a final blessing, he declared: “Grazie e buona notte” — “Thank you and good night” in Italian.
It was a remarkable bookend to a papacy that began April 19, 2005, with a similarly meek speech delivered from the loggia overlooking St. Peter’s Square, where the newly elected Benedict said he was but a “simple humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.”
Over his eight-year papacy, Benedict tried to set the church on a more traditional course, convinced that all the ills afflicting it — sexual abuse, dwindling numbers of priests and empty pews — were a result of a misreading of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
His successor likely is to follow in his footsteps, given that the vast majority of the 115 cardinals who will elect the next pope were appointed by Benedict himself and share his conservative bent.
For the time being, the governance of the church shifts to Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the camerlengo, or chamberlain, who along with the College of Cardinals will guide the church and make plans starting Monday for the conclave to elect the 266th leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
One of Bertone’s first acts was to lock the papal apartment inside the Vatican. In another task steeped in symbolism, he will ensure that Benedict’s papal ring and seal are destroyed.
Benedict’s journey into retirement began with a final audience with his cardinals, where he sought to defuse concerns about his future role and the possible conflicts arising from having both a reigning and a retired pope living side-by-side inside the Vatican.
“Among you is also the future pope, whom I today promise my unconditional reverence and obedience,” Benedict told the cardinals.
Benedict’s decision to live at the Vatican in retirement, wear the white cassock associated with the papacy and be called “emeritus pope” and “Your Holiness,” rather than revert back to his birth name, Joseph Ratzinger, has deepened concerns about the shadow he might cast over the next pope.
Benedict has tried to address those worries, saying that he will be “hidden from the world” and live a life of prayer in retirement. On Thursday, he took a step further with his own public pledge to place himself entirely under the authority of the new pope.
Benedict also gave a final set of instructions to the princes of the church who will elect his successor, urging them to be united.