Pope Benedict XVI, the first pontiff to resign in 600 years, will step down today to lead a secluded life of prayer, far from the grueling demands of the papacy and the scandals that have recently plagued the church.
Benedict, 85, will spend a quiet final day as pope bidding farewell to his colleagues that have gathered in Vatican City to see him depart. His first order of business this morning is a meeting with the College of Cardinals in the Clementine Hall, a room in the Apostolic Palace, where Angelo Sodano, the dean of the College of Cardinals, is set to speak, but not Benedict.
Despite the historical nature of Benedict's resignation, not all cardinals are expected to attend the event. With their first working meeting not until Monday, only around 100 cardinals are set to be in Vatican City Thursday, the Vatican press office said. Those who are there for Benedict's departure will be greeted by seniority.
In the evening, at 5:00 p.m. local time, Benedict will leave the Vatican palace for the last time to head to Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence outside of Rome. Before his departure the German-born theologian will say some goodbyes in the Courtyard of San Damaso, inside the Vatican, first to his Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone and then to the Swiss Guards who have protected him as pontiff.
From there it is a short drive to a heliport for the 15-minute flight via helicopter to Castel Gandolfo, just south of the city. Benedict will not be alone on his journey, accompanied by members of the Pontifical Household such as two private secretaries, the head of protocol, his personal physician and his butler.
Once Benedict lands in the gardens at Castel Gandolfo, a group of dignitaries, such as the governor of the Vatican City state Giovanni Bertello, two bishops, the director of the pontifical villas, and the mayor and parish priest. Off the helicopter and into a car, Benedict will head to the palace that he will call home for the coming months. From a window of the palace, Benedict will make one final wave to the crowd at the papal retreat.
It is there, at 8:00 p.m., that Benedict's resignation will take effect once and for all. Once the gates to the residence close, the Swiss Guards will leave Benedict's side for the last time, their time protecting the pontiff completed.
For some American Catholics in Rome for the historic occasion, Benedict's departure is bittersweet. Christopher Kerzich, a Chicago resident studying at the Pontifical North American College of Rome, said Wednesday he is sad to see Benedict leave, but excited to see what comes next.
"Many Catholics have come to love this pontiff, this very humble man," Kerzich said. "He is a man who's really fought this and prayed this through and has peace in his heart. I take comfort in that and I think a lot of Catholics should take comfort in that."
In his final address to the faithful as leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Benedict on Wednesday said his decision to resign was "the fruit of a serene trust in God's will and a deep love of Christ's Church." Before a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people in St. Peter's Square, Benedict said he was "deeply grateful for the understanding, support, and prayers of so many of you, not only here in Rome, but also throughout the world."
The date of the conclave to determine Benedict's successor has yet to be determined. In one of his last moves as pope, Benedict issued a decree permitting the cardinals to convene the conclave before the March 15 date that would have been required under the old rules.
Benedict is eventually planning to move to a monastery inside Vatican City once work there is finished, but until then he will call home the palace at Castel Gandolfo. He will be known as "pope emeritus" and don brown shoes given to him on his trip to Mexico, rather than the red ones he wore as pontiff.