Rome (CNN) Pope Benedict XVI made what is likely to be his last ever public appearance Thursday, thanking cheering crowds for their “friendship” as he steps down as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
“I am no longer the pope but I am still in the church. I’m just a pilgrim who is starting the last part of his pilgrimage on this earth,” he said.
Benedict’s historic resignation as pope takes effect at 8 p.m. (2 p.m. ET).
His final words and a blessing were given to some 10,000 people who had gathered at Castel Gandolfo, the summer papal residence, to bid him an emotional farewell.
“With all my heart and prayers and thoughts and strengths, I’d like to work for the common good and for the good of the church and mankind,” he said.
“I feel very much supported by your sympathy. We will go together ahead with the Lord, for the good of the church and the world. Thank you very much.”
Smiling slightly, he made the sign of the Cross to bless the crowds and disappeared into the building.
It is likely to be the last time he is seen in public.
At 8 p.m., the Swiss Guards, the soldiers who traditionally protect the pope, will ceremonially leave the gates of the residence and seals will be placed on the entrance to the pope’s Vatican apartment, the Vatican said.
The first pope to resign in nearly 600 years, his departure ushers in a period of great uncertainty for the Roman Catholic Church as the cardinals work to elect the next pontiff.
Benedict earlier left Vatican City for the last time as pope amid pomp and ceremony.
An honor guard of Swiss Guards lined up to bid him farewell as, looking frail and carrying a cane, he left the papal apartment to applause from senior Vatican officials and staff.
The sound of bells from St. Peter’s Basilica chimed across the city of Rome as the helicopter carrying him to Castel Gandolfo soared overhead, passing above landmarks like the Colosseum.
Although Benedict will eventually return to Vatican City to live out his days, he will never again set foot there as pope.
His final tweet, sent at 11 a.m. ET from his @Pontifex account, read: “Thank you for your love and support. May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the centre of your lives.”
The pope has the right to wear the symbolic Fisherman’s Ring until 8 p.m., Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said.
After that the ring and Benedict’s papal seal will be “destroyed” by means of making scratch marks so that they can no longer be used to seal documents, he added.
The process of transition to a new pope will then begin.
Benedict, who will be known as “pontiff emeritus,” will spend the next few weeks at the peaceful, hilltop Castel Gandolfo residence before moving to a small monastery within the Vatican grounds.
He entered his final day as pontiff with an unusual act — a pledge of “unconditional obedience” and respect to whoever takes up the reins after his dramatic resignation later.
His promise came in a last meeting Thursday morning with the cardinals who will pick his successor, almost certainly from within their own ranks.
“I will continue to serve you in prayer, in particular in the coming days, so that you may be touched by the Holy Spirit in the election of a new pope,” he said.
His words appeared designed to answer concerns that the presence of a former pontiff might lead to confusion or competing loyalties once the new pope is installed.
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