VATICAN CITY (CBSDC/AP) — Pope Benedict XVI has left the Vatican as the leader of the Catholic Church for the last time.

The pope was greeted by cardinals and got a rousing ovation after leaving his residence.

Benedict boarded a helicopter to fly to the papal residence of Castel Gandolfo where at 8 p.m., 2 p.m. ET, he will officially end his reign as pope.

The pope thanked his supporters in a tweet to his nearly 1.6 million followers.

“Thank you for your love and support,” Benedict said on Twitter. “May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the center of your lives.”

Before leaving, the 85-year-old Benedict gave an unexpected address inside the Vatican’s frescoed Clementine Hall, appearing to defuse concerns about his future role as “emeritus pope” and the situation of having a reigning pope and retired pope inside the Vatican.

“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, according to The Associated Press.

Benedict is the first pontiff in 600 years to resign. The Swiss Guards standing at attention will go into the palazzo and shut the doors behind them and go off duty, their service protecting the head of the Catholic Church over – for now.

Listen to local reaction to the end of Benedict XVI’s papacy:

Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi Lombardi said the guards would change into civilian clothes and return to the Vatican barracks Thursday night. They will continue to guard the entrances of Vatican City and the pope’s palace, “even if he’s not there,” said Cpl. Urs Breitenmoser, a Swiss Guard spokesman.

And on Monday, the cardinals are expected to begin meeting to set the date for the conclave.

Benedict’s decision has been met for the most part with praise and understanding. Cardinals, Vatican officials and ordinary Catholics have rallied around him in acknowledgment of his frail state and the church’s need for a strong leader.

But Sydney Cardinal George Pell has caused a stir by openly saying the resignation has been “slightly destabilizing” for the church.

In an interview with Australian Broadcasting Corp., Pell noted that Benedict himself had acknowledged the shift in tradition; Benedict said Wednesday that he appreciated his decision was not only serious but “a novelty” for the church.

Pell also said the church was in sore need of a strong manager – comments echoed by several cardinals who have noted the 30-year reign of two popes who paid scant attention to the internal governance of the church.

The Vatican tried to downplay Pell’s comments, saying it wouldn’t respond to individual cardinals and urging the media not to take advantage of churchmen who, he said, aren’t necessarily media savvy.

WNEW’s Kevin Patrick contributed to this report. Follow him and WNEW on Twitter.

(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)


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