CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy — Benedict XVI left the Catholic Church in unprecedented limbo yesterday as he became the first pope in 600 years to resign, capping a tearful day of farewells that included an extraordinary pledge of obedience to his successor.
As bells tolled, two Swiss Guards standing at attention at the papal palace in Castel Gandolfo shut the thick wooden doors shortly after 8 p.m., symbolically closing out a papacy whose legacy will be most marked by the way it ended — a resignation instead of a death.
Benedict, who will spend his first two months of retirement inside the palace walls, leaves behind an eight-year term shaped by struggles to move the church beyond clerical sex abuse scandals and to reawaken Christianity in an indifferent world — efforts his successor will now have to take up.
For the time being, the governance of the Catholic Church shifts to Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the camerlengo, or chamberlain, who along with the College of Cardinals will guide the church and make plans for the conclave to elect the 266th leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
One of Bertone’s first acts was to lock the papal apartment inside the Vatican. In another task steeped in symbolism, he will ensure that Benedict’s fisherman’s ring and seal are destroyed.
On Benedict’s last day, the mood was vastly different inside the Vatican than at Castel Gandolfo. At the seat of the popes, Benedict’s staff tearfully bade the pontiff goodbye in scenes of dignified solemnity. A more lively atmosphere reigned in the countryside, with well-wishers jamming the hilltop town’s main square shouting “Viva il Papa!” (Long live the pope!) and wildly waving the yellow and white flags of the Holy See.
“I am simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this Earth,” Benedict told the cheering crowd in his final public words as pope.