CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy – As bells tolled and the clock struck 8, the brass-studded wooden doors swung shut Thursday at this palace in the Italian hills, marking an end to Benedict XVI’s papacy and the start of his final journey as a “simple pilgrim.”
Capping a day of tearful farewells that included an extraordinary pledge of obedience to his successor, Benedict entered history as the first pope in 600 years to resign – leaving the Catholic Church in unprecedented limbo and ending a pontificate shaped by struggles to move beyond clerical sex abuse scandals and reawaken Christianity in an indifferent world.
On Benedict’s last day, the mood was vastly different inside the Vatican than at Castel Gandolfo, the 17th-century papal retreat set in the hills south of Rome, where he will spend the first two months of his retirement.
At the seat of the popes, Benedict’s staff bade the pontiff goodbye in scenes of dignified solemnity, with Swiss Guards in full regalia and prelates kneeling to kiss his papal ring one last time.
In the countryside, well-wishers jammed the hilltop town’s main square, shouting “Viva il Papa!” and waving the yellow-and-white flags of the Holy See. Cheers went up as Benedict, 85, stepped onto the palace balcony and, arms outstretched, declared his papacy was at its end.
“I am simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this Earth,” he said. Then giving a final blessing, he declared: “Grazie e buona notte” – “Thank you and good night” in Italian.
It was a bookend to a papacy that began April 19, 2005, with a similarly meek speech delivered from the loggia overlooking St. Peter’s Square, where the newly elected Benedict said he was a “simple humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.”
Over his eight-year papacy, Benedict tried to set the church on a more traditional course, convinced that all the ills afflicting it – sexual abuse, dwindling numbers of priests and empty pews – were a result of a misreading of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.