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Now pope emeritus Benedict XVI leaves the balcony of his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, after greeting wellwishers in the square below. It was his last public appearance as pontiff. Alessandra Tarantino/AP
Ex Benedict

Benedict XVI formally steps down as leader of Catholic Church

Cardinals will now meet to elect a successor, while the 85-year-old former Joseph Ratzinger will be known as ‘Pope Emeritus’.

POPE BENEDICT XVI has formally stepped down as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, ending eight years at the helm.

The 85-year-old saw out the final hours of his papacy at the papal rural retreat, Castel Gandolfo, about 40 minutes south-east of Rome.

As the village bells tolled 8pm local time, the doors of Castel Gandolfo were closed and the Swiss Guards, the Vatican police force whose prime task is to ensure the safety of the pontiff, were symbolically stood down.

The Vatican’s yellow-and-white flag was also lowered from above the retreat, where Benedict has spent many of his papal summers writing and reading.

The former Joseph Ratzinger will now be known as ‘pope emeritus’, but will still be addressed as ‘His Holiness’.

He will take up residence in a cloistered monastery within the Vatican, but will take no part in the conclave to elect his successor – and has pledged full obedience to whomever may succeed him.

This morning Benedict held his final meeting with the College of Cardinals, telling them that one of them would be his successor and urged them to work in harmony in their task of identifying the Catholic Church’s 266th Pope.

“May the College of Cardinals work like an orchestra, where diversity – an expression of the universal church – always works toward a higher and harmonious agreement,” he said.

Benedict said he would pray for the cardinals in coming days as they discuss the issues facing the church, the qualities needed in a new pope, and prepare to enter into the secret conclave to elect him.

“Among you is also the future pope, whom I today promise my unconditional reverence and obedience,” Benedict told the cardinals.

In the period of sede vacante – the official name for the period in which the papacy is vacant - the pope’s functions as head of the Church are transferred to the College of Cardinals, whose decision-making powers are significantly limited for the time being.

The role as the head of the Vatican, the sovereign city-state where the Holy See is headquartered, falls to Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone – the Vatican secretary of the state and the ‘Camerlengo’, or head of the papal household.

The 115 cardinals who will choose Benedict’s successor are expected to begin meeting on Monday to set the date for the conclave, where they will be sealed in the Sistine Chapel until a successor has been identified.

Until recently, canon law required that the conclave begin 15 days after the vacancy arises – but one of Benedict’s last acts was to change the law so that the conclave can be brought forward if all the cardinals of voting age are present in Rome.

Explainer: How is a new Pope chosen?

Glossary: Some of the terms you’ll hear during the Papal election

Read: A 12-century Irish saint reckons the next pope is the last

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