VATICAN CITY: Pope Benedict XVI waved a final goodbye on Thursday from the balcony of the papal residence before starting a life of retirement as the first pontiff to resign of their own will in over 700 years.
"I will no longer be pope but a simple pilgrim who is starting out on the last part of his pilgrimage on this Earth," the pope told thousands of cheering supporters gathered in a square outside the Castel Gandolfo palace.
"I am happy to be with you surrounded by the beauty of creation. Thank you for your friendship and affection," said the frail but smiling 85-year-old, dressed in the white papal cassock.
Church bells tolled to announce the arrival of the soon-to-be former pope in the lakeside mediaeval town, which has for centuries provided popes a refuge from Rome's sweltering summers.
"It means a huge amount to us that Benedict has chosen to say his final goodbyes here," said gift shop saleswoman Patrizia Gasperini, standing by the imposing wooden doors of the papal palace that will swing shut at precisely 1900 GMT, marking the formal end of Benedict's reign.
The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics earlier left the Vatican in a white helicopter emblazoned with the Vatican flag, seeing St Peter's Basilica from the sky for the last time as pope.
The bells of St Peter's rang out to mark the historic event as the pope took leave of his closest aides in an emotional Vatican sendoff where he was applauded and cheered by priests and nuns as liveried Swiss Guards stood at attention.
"Thank you for your love and support," the pope said in a final tweet sent from his @pontifex Twitter account just before taking off.
"May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the centre of your lives."
The Twitter account will now be suspended until a new pope is elected in a conclave next month.
Castel Gandolfo residents plan to process with torches to mark the historic moment when Benedict officially steps down.
The Swiss Guards will leave their posts at Castel Gandolfo at 1900 GMT on the dot, having completed their official duty to protect the pope.
The military corps, best known for its brightly coloured uniforms, halberds and red-plumed helmets, has protected the papacy since the 15th century.
Back at the Vatican, the bells of St Peter's Basilica will peal once again, and, as tradition dictates, workers will seal the papal apartments and the lift that leads up to them -- to be broken only once a new pope has been elected.
Benedict is only the second pope to resign in the Church's 2,000-year history, and in his final hours as pope on Thursday he took the unprecedented step of pledging allegiance to his successor.
"Among you there is also the future pope to whom I promise my unconditional obedience and reverence," the pope said earlier on Thursday in final remarks to cardinals in an ornate Vatican hall.
"Let the Lord reveal the one he has chosen," said the pope, wearing an ermine-lined red stole over his white cassock as cardinals doffed their berettas and lined up to kiss the papal ring.
'We've grown to love him'
Benedict will remove the personalised signet ring -- known as the "Fisherman's Ring" -- before he leaves office and an "X" will be etched on its face, a tradition aimed at preventing forgeries during the interregnum between popes.
"We have experienced, with faith, beautiful moments of radiant light together, as well as times with a few clouds in the sky," Benedict told the cardinals, reprising his remarks to a crowd of 150,000 faithful in St Peter's Square on Wednesday.
"Let us remain united, dear brothers," he said, in the final moments of an eight-year pontificate often overshadowed by infighting at the Vatican and divisions between reformers and traditionalists in the Catholic Church.
The Vatican has said pope will live in Castel Gandolfo for the next two months before taking up permanent residence in a former convent on a hilltop in the Vatican grounds overlooking Rome.
The German pope stunned the globe when he announced on February 11 his decision to step down, saying he no longer had the "strength of mind and body" required by a fast-changing world.
The news has captured massive media attention, with the Vatican saying that 3,641 journalists from 61 countries will cover the upcoming conclave -- on top of the regular Vatican press corps.
The ex-pontiff will formally carry the new title of "Roman Pontiff Emeritus" or "pope emeritus" for short, although he will still be addressed as "Your Holiness Benedict XVI".
The Vatican has said he can still wear the white papal cassock but without the doubled shoulder cape.
The only other pope who resigned by choice was Celestine V, a humble hermit who stepped down in 1294 after just a few months in office out of disgust with Vatican corruption and intrigue.
Once Benedict takes up residence inside the Vatican, the Church will be in the unprecedented situation of having a pope and his predecessor living within a stone's throw of each other.
Commenting on the new arrangement, Vatican spokesperson Federico Lombardi said that Benedict "has no intention of interfering in the positions, decisions or activities of his successor".
Benedict has said he will live "hidden from the world" but the Vatican indicated he could provide "spiritual guidance" to the next pope.
Vatican analysts have suggested his sudden exit could set a precedent for ageing popes in the future, and many ordinary Catholics say a more youthful, pastoral figure could breathe new life into a Church struggling on many levels.
From Catholic reformers calling for women clergy and for an end to priestly celibacy, to growing secularism in the West and ongoing scandals over sexual abuses by paedophile priests going back decades, the next pope will have a tough agenda.
"It's a very emotional day," said Gasperini, the saleswoman in Castel Gandolfo, who named her eight-year-old daughter Benedetta in the pope's honour.
"We've been privileged to see a different, more humane side to him over the years, and grown to love him," she said.