Benedict Leaves Vatican for First Retirement in 600 Years

Pope Benedict XVI flew out of Vatican City for the last time as pontiff as he prepared to become the first head of the Catholic church to abdicate in 600 years.

The pope, 85, boarded a white Italian government helicopter with the white and yellow Vatican flag in the window that lifted off shortly after 5 p.m. in Rome as church bells sounded across the city. After a 15-minute flight that took him over some of the ruins of ancient Rome, he touched down at the papal residence in Castel Gandolfo.

“I am not the church’s pontiff anymore; I will be until 8 tonight and then no longer,” he told well wishers who cheered and waved banners outside the summer palace. “I am simply a pilgrim who is beginning the last stage of his pilgrimage on this earth.”

The leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics will cease to be pope at 8 p.m. Rome time. At that time the Swiss guards who protect the pontiff will abandon their post at the doors of the 17th-century villa, leaving the task to Vatican gendarmes.

“May the Lord show you what is willed by him,” Benedict said in a farewell greeting today to cardinals who will pick the next pope, according to a Vatican Radio transcript. “Among the College of Cardinals, there is also the future pope, to whom, here today, I already promise my unconditional reverence and obedience.”

Grappling With Controversy

Benedict’s abdication, the first since Pope Gregory XII in 1415, comes as the Roman Catholic Church grapples with a wave of controversy including clerical sex abuse and the leaking of papal documents. It also ends the career of Joseph Ratzinger, who rose to become Catholicism’s doctrinal watchdog and then Roman pontiff after growing up in Nazi Germany.

During the interim period without a pontiff, known as “sede vacante” or vacant seat, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone will be acting head of the Vatican carrying the title “camerlengo,” or chamberlain.

As Benedict struggled to tame controversy during his last year in power, Bertone came under scrutiny. He was portrayed as undermining the pope in a swirl of palace intrigue, in a book by an Italian journalist based on papal documents pilfered by the pontiff’s butler, Paolo Gabriele.

Gabriele indicated he’d leaked the documents to protect the pope and expose “evil and corruption” inside the Vatican. Benedict pardoned the butler last month after he’d been sentenced to 18 months in a Vatican jail for theft.

‘Imitating Dan Brown’

Bertone, 78, has accused journalists covering the case of “imitating Dan Brown,” author of “The Da Vinci Code,” the bestseller that depicted the Vatican as a hotbed of deception. The media “invent fables,” he said in an interview last June with Italian magazine Famiglia Cristiana.

This week, the pope met with Julian Herranz, Jozef Tomko and Salvatore De Giorgi, the cardinals he tasked with investigating the leaks and who in December handed him a secret dossier on the case known as “Vatileaks.”

While the pope said he lacked the strength to lead the church when he announced his intention to resign on Feb. 11, Italian magazine Panorama and newspaper la Repubblica reported last week that he had decided to step down after receiving the secret file. It detailed a Vatican network of sex and graft that made some prelates vulnerable to blackmail, the press reports said, citing unidentified people close to the probe.

Exerting Pressure

Lombardi said the reports “don’t correspond to reality.” The Vatican accused media Feb. 23 of seeking “to exert pressure” on cardinals before the conclave.

Still, the probe was able to identify “those who work with uprightness and generosity in the Holy See,” the Vatican said in a statement after the pope met with the investigators on Feb. 25. While the dossier will remain secret before being handed to the future pope, its authors may discuss it with other cardinals during pre-conclave talks, Lombardi said.

Those talks, which will debate the timing of the conclave and other issues, will probably begin March 4, according to Lombardi. They will involve about 100 cardinals who exceed the voting-age limit of 80 as well as the 115 who are set to join the secret gathering in the Sistine Chapel later next month.

Benedict’s papacy, which began after he spent a quarter-century as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal office, has been marked by upheaval. At first, he struggled to respond to accusations that the church was doing too little to punish pedophile priests and covering up evidence from the U.S. and Europe.

Speaking Out

Benedict later oversaw the publishing of the first Vatican guidelines for dealing with clerics accused of abuse. He also began to speak out publicly against what he called the “cloud of filth” that had soiled the church.

A bookish scholar, Benedict spent years penning by hand a philosophical take on the life of Jesus Christ in a three-volume book. He opposed “moral relativism,” the idea that truth is malleable and can be adjusted to lifestyles, and considered it his mission to resist changes sweeping modern society.

He’ll return to a Vatican convent in two months to live out his days in prayer with the title “pope emeritus.” In a farewell address to pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square, Benedict reminisced yesterday about moments of “joy and light” during his papacy as well as times when “it seemed like the Lord was sleeping.”