The symbols of an historic change of power within the Catholic faith were on great display Thursday in Rome. The Swiss Guards vanished into the palace to change out of their colorful garb, having completed their duty of protecting the pope; the papal apartment in the Vatican was sealed.
Benedict, the first pope to step down since the Middle Ages, met with senior prelates one last time Thursday; in the Apostolic Palace’s Clementine Hall, 144 cardinals filed before Benedict one by one to shake his hand or kiss his ring. Many of the prelates removed their red skullcaps out of respect as they exchanged words with the outgoing pontiff.
During the final meeting Benedict urged the cardinals to deepen their unity and harmony "like an orchestra" adding, that "I will continue to be near to you in prayer, especially in the coming days, so that you may be fully docile to the Holy Spirit's action in electing the new pope."
Benedict said he would pray for God's guidance in their choice of pope; he also pledged allegiance to his eventual successor, an apparent attempt to allay fear of conflicted loyalties in the church's ranks due to the presence of both a reigning and a retired pope within the Vatican's walls.
After his respite at Castel Gandolfo, Benedict will move into a renovated nunnery in the Vatican Gardens, a stone's throw from the papal apartment he used to occupy.
Still wearing his white papal vestments, Benedict boarded his helicopter shortly after 5 p.m. as the bells of St. Peter's Basilica pealed. Half an hour later, before the crowd that greeted him with chants of "Benedetto! Benedetto!" he appeared on the balcony of the summer palace in Castel Gandolfo to make perhaps the last public remarks of his life.
As his helicopter rose into the late-afternoon sky and soared over beloved landmarks in Rome such as the Colosseum, the 85-year-old Benedict left behind a tense period of waiting for the followers of a church beset by a crisis of authority in many parts of the world and an ongoing sexual abuse scandal.
Once his papacy was over, Benedict said, he would become "simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this earth." But he said he still wanted to contribute to the good of the church and all humanity.
The first step toward the announcement of a new pope will take place Monday. The College of Cardinals is expected to hold its first meeting to decide the date of the conclave to select Benedict's successor.
About 115 of the red-hatted cardinals will cast their votes for the 266th pope.
Vatican officials have expressed hope that a new pontiff will be installed before Easter Sunday, March 31, a timetable that requires the cardinals to reach consensus through an incredibly short conclave.
But others warned against rushing matters, pleading for time to discuss challenges being faced by the Catholic Church, and then deciding who is best equipped to tackle them.