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Benedict XVI leaves Vatican, winds down final hours as pope

Pope Benedict XVI is due to end his eight-year pontificate shortly and has left the Vatican. A day earlier he imparted his final blessing as he held his last general audience at the Vatican.

On Thursday, Pope Benedict entered into his final hours as leader of the Catholic Church before retiring to a private life of prayer and meditation.

He left the Vatican for the last time as pope late Thursday afternoon, flying via helicopter from Rome to the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfos shortly before the official end of his papacy at 1900 GMT.

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Pope Benedict spends final day in office

The 85-year-old shocked the world earlier this month, becoming the first pontiff to step down of his own free will in 600 years. He cited his advancing age and declining strength as reasons for his resignation.

The Pope's unprecedented decision has raised many questions about what role he will assume and how his life will look in the future.

He will receive two new titles - Roman pontiff emeritus and emeritus pope - but will continue to be addressed directly as "Your Holiness."

The College of Cardinals is scheduled to meet early next week to discuss the current priorities for the Church and to set the date for the conclave where the next pope will be elected.

Emotional farewell

Addressing tens of thousands of pilgrims gathered at the Vatican on the eve of his resignation on Wednesday, Pope Benedict XVI gave an emotional farewell.

"Right now my soul is open to embrace the entire Church and I'd like to thank everybody for the help I have received and the charity that's inside the church," he said, adding that he never felt alone in such a public position.

Following readings from the Gospels in several languages, the pope spoke to the crowd more candidly than usual about his eight years at the head of the Roman Catholic Church.

"What I heard in my heart [when elected] was, 'God, why are you asking me to do this and what are you asking me to do? You are giving me a heavy burden'," Benedict said.

"Eight years later, I'd like to say that God guided me, has been close to me," he said. "I have his presence every day. We have had moments of joy ... and difficult moments."

Benedict reiterated that his resignation stemmed from the desire to do what was best for the worldwide congregation. Given his diminishing strength, he could no longer lead.

ccp, kms/jm (AFP, AP, dpa)

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