Society - Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI made his final farewell to followers telling them 'he will become a simple pilgrim' as he appeared on the balcony of the papal summer home in Castel Gandolfo before he officially resigned at 7 pm Thursday.
The AFP quoted him as telling thousands of his well-wishers gathered in the square below: 'I will no longer be pope but a simple pilgrim who is starting out on the last part of his pilgrimage on this earth.'
He also urged his followers to put 'Christ at the centre of your lives' in his final tweet from his Twitter handle @pontifex Thursday, three hours before his historic retirement.
'Thank you for your love and support. May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the centre of your lives,' said the tweet, which went out just as a helicopter whisked the pope away from the Vatican to retirement.
Pope Benedict left the Vatican Thursday after pledging unconditional obedience to whoever succeeds him to guide the Roman Catholic Church at one of the most crisis-ridden periods in its 2,000-year history.
He added that he 'will become a simple pilgrim' as he appeared on the balcony of the papal summer home in Castel Gandolfo, where he took up temporary residence.
The first pope in six centuries to step down, Benedict flew off in a white Italian air force helicopter for the papal summer villa south of the capital.
Bells rang out from St Peter's Basilica and churches all over Rome as the helicopter circled Vatican City and flew over the Colosseum and other landmarks to give the pontiff one last view of the city where he is also bishop.
'As you know, today is different to previous ones,' he told an emotional, cheering crowd in the small town of Castel Gandolfo in his last public remarks as pope. I will only be the supreme pontiff of the Catholic Church until 8 p.m and then no longer. I will simply be a pilgrim who is starting the last phase of his pilgrimage on this earth.'
He turned and went inside the villa, never to be seen again as pope.
In an emotional farewell to cardinals yesterday morning in the Vatican's frescoed Sala Clementina, Benedict appeared to send a strong message to the top echelons of the church as well as the faithful to remain united behind his successor, whoever he is.
'I will continue to be close to you in prayer, especially in the next few days, so that you are fully accepting of the action of the Holy Spirit in the election of the new pope,' he said. 'May the Lord show you what he wants. Among you there is the future pope, to whom I today declare my unconditional reverence and obedience.'
The pledge, made ahead of the closed-door conclave where cardinals will elect his successor, was significant because for the first time in history, there will be a reigning pope and a former pope living side by side in the Vatican.
Some church scholars worry that if the next pope undoes some of Benedict's policies while his predecessor is still alive, Benedict could act as a lightning rod for conservatives and polarise the 1.2 billion-member church.
Before boarding the helicopter, Pope Benedict said goodbye to monsignors, nuns, Vatican staff and Swiss guards in the San Damaso courtyard of the Holy See's apostolic palace. Many of his staff had tears in their eyes as the helicopter left.
As the helicopter took off, he sent his last message on Twitter: 'Thank you for your love and support. May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the centre of your lives'.
Benedict will spend the first few months of his retirement in the papal summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, a complex of villas boasting lush gardens, a farm and stunning views over Lake Albano in the volcanic crater below the town.
By Paul Ohia with Agency Report