On the stroke of 8pm last week on Thursday, as bells chimed and pilgrims stifled sobs, the Swiss guards who had been standing outside the apostolic palace of Castel Gandolfo retreated inside, their duty done. The man they had come to protect, three hours before, was no longer eligible for their care. In spectacular style through cloudless skies, he had arrived a pope, but was now, in his own words, “simply a pilgrim.”
Benedict XVI, the conservative whose most revolutionary act in eight years of papacy was arguably the way in which he left it, was now the emeritus pope, as fallible as any other. With no funeral and no mourning, the Holy See had become sede vacante.
In his final appearance as head of the Roman Catholic church, the 264th successor of St Peter greeted crowds of locals and pilgrims in the small hilltop town where popes have been coming to spend their summers for 400 years. He had left the Vatican City at 5pm, walking with a cane and bringing tears to the eyes of his entourage. Thirty minutes later, after a helicopter ride swept him over the finest sights of Rome, he emerged on the balcony of Castel Gandolfo’s apostolic palace to a roar from the people who had been waiting for him for hours.
“Dear friends,” he began, to huge cries and applause. “You know this day is different for me than the preceding ones: I am no longer the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church, or I will be until 8 o’clock this evening and then no more.”
“I am simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this Earth, but I would still ... with my heart, with my love, with my prayers, with my reflection and with all my inner strength, like to work for the common good and the good of the church and of humanity. I feel very supported by your sympathy. Let us go forward with the Lord for the good of the church and the world,” he said.
His last public words as pope were: “Thank you and goodnight. Thank you to all of you.”
The message was brief, barely two minutes long, but it was enough for those assembled. Schoolteacher Francesca Pagliarini was left dabbing away tears.
“What he said was particularly moving,” she said. “He said we were all brothers.”
All around her, crammed into the small piazza, nuns sang, pilgrims prayed and a five-year-old Italian boy gave out sporadic cries of “Long live the pope.”
Hanging out of windows and gathering on balconies, the townspeople watched to catch a glimpse of history in the making. As the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper L’Osservatore Romano wrote, this was a “new way.”
For the first time, a papacy was ending “quietly, without the drama of the bishop of Rome’s death,” it said.
Earlier in the day, in his last official engagement in the Vatican, Benedict XVI had unexpectedly addressed 144 cardinals of the church in the Clementine Hall of the apostolic palace. Sitting on a throne in a crimson velvet cape, he gave them — and the wider world — a clear message: that they should unite behind his successor.
“Among you is the future pope, to whom I promise my unconditional reverence and obedience,” he said, looking up from prepared notes.
The subtext of the address said that those worrying about divided loyalties in the future Vatican of “two popes” should stop. However, doubts remain. Benedict XVI will continue to wear white, the traditional color of popes, and will retain the style of His Holiness Benedict XVI. After two months spent in the papal villas at Castel Gandolfo, he will return to the Vatican and move into a former convent that is being restored for him. He has said he is “withdrawing into prayer” and may remain “hidden from the world.”