(MCT) — VATICAN CITY — The Swiss Guards vanished inside the palace to change out of their colorful garb, their responsibility to protect the pope over for the moment. The papal apartment in the Vatican was sealed. Pope Benedict XVI’s retirement had taken effect, propelling the Roman Catholic Church into a highly unusual and uncertain interregnum.
Benedict, the first pope to step down since the Middle Ages, met with senior prelates one last time earlier Thursday, urging them to unite and pledging to revere and obey the man chosen from their ranks to replace him.
The first step toward that end 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 and to start hashing out the church’s priorities. About 115 of the red-hatted cardinals, the “princes” of the church, will cast their votes for the 266th pope.
The process of electing a new leader is likely to be fraught with subtle machinations among the cardinals and frenzied speculation by observers parsing their every move, a very human overlay on what is supposed to be a divinely inspired experience.
Some Vatican officials have expressed hope that a new pontiff will be installed by Easter Sunday, March 31, a timetable that would require the cardinals to reach consensus within a relatively short conclave. But others have warned against rushing matters, pleading for time to discuss the challenges facing the church and then to determine who is best equipped to tackle them.
When his nearly eight years as pope formally came to an end at 8 p.m., Benedict was already at the papal summer palace in the town of Castel Gandolfo south of Rome, where he will spend the first few weeks of his life as “pope emeritus.”
As his helicopter rose into the late-afternoon sky and buzzed over the Colosseum and other landmarks, the 85-year-old Benedict left behind weeping staff members, cheering well-wishers and a church beset by a crisis of authority in many parts of the world, an ongoing sexual abuse scandal and, now, a tense period of waiting.
At a farewell ceremony with the black-robed cardinals, Benedict said he would pray for God’s guidance in their choice of pope.
He also pledged allegiance to his eventual successor, in an apparent attempt to allay fears of conflicted loyalties in the church’s ranks because of 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.
“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,” the pontiff said. “Among you is … the future pope, to whom I already today promise my unconditional reverence and obedience.”
Benedict urged the cardinals to deepen their unity and harmony “like an orchestra.” Critics have portrayed the Vatican as an institution riven by backbiting and corruption.
That impression was fueled by a report Thursday in Italy’s Panorama newsmagazine alleging that Tarcisio Bertone, the former No. 2 at the Vatican, had ordered phones tapped and mail opened in the wake of the scandal over leaked papal documents. Benedict’s personal butler was convicted by a church tribunal last year of stealing the papers after an investigation by authorities.
“There may have been some wiretaps and controls ordered by the investigating magistrate, but I can assure you it was not on a large scale,” Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said in response to Panorama’s report. “Two to three phones were tapped.”
By contrast, absolute secrecy will be enforced during the cardinals’ conclave in the Sistine Chapel, which Vatican police are sweeping for bugging devices. Anyone caught breaking a blanket gag order will be subject to excommunication.
At Thursday morning’s farewell in the beautifully frescoed Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace, 144 cardinals filed before Benedict one by one to shake his hand or kiss his ring. (Only cardinals younger than 80 are allowed to vote in the conclave.)
Many of the prelates removed their red skullcaps out of respect as they exchanged words with the outgoing pontiff. Among them was Cardinal Roger Mahony; the pope smiled at him and said a few words.
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 crowds who 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.
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 pope emeritus began his retirement in seclusion but also in style. The papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo sits on a 136-acre estate on the rim of a volcanic lake and commands spectacular views across open countryside to the Mediterranean. Popes have vacationed there for centuries.
Benedict will have easy access to formal gardens, fountains, observatories for stargazing and a first-century Roman theater.
Before leaving the Vatican, Benedict issued his last tweet as pope: “Thank you for your love and support. May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the center of your lives.”
But in a 21st-century sign of continuity for an ancient institution, the papal Twitter account will be left open for Benedict’s successor.
(Times staff writer Chu reported from Vatican City and special correspondent Kington from Castel Gandolfo.)