Benedict XVI Leaves The Vatican, Headed To Retirement

The first pope to retire in centuries will stay at the papal retreat at Castel Gandolfo until an apartment for him at the Vatican is renovated. Meantime, preparations for electing a new pope are under way.

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We're hearing this morning that Pope Benedict has left the Vatican. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is covering the first papal retirement in 600 years, and she joins us now from Rome. And Sylvia, describe the scene for us there.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Well, it was a very emotional scene as Benedict first left all his close aides and employees and officials at the Vatican and then he went to the helicopter pad and has taken off. And I can't help but say this, but we see him now on pictures of Vatican TV flying into the sunset. He's going to his papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, where - and the trip will take about 15 minutes.

At 8:00 p.m. today - that'll be 2:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, Benedict's papacy will formally end. The gates of Castel Gandolfo will close and the Swiss guards that have protected popes for more than 500 years will leave their posts because they no longer are assigned to protect him. He will keep the name Benedict and he will be known as Emeritus Pope or Pope Emeritus. He'll continue to wear white, but without the papal shoulder cape. He will stay at Castel Gandolfo for about two months or so, until his apartment at the Vatican is ready.

MONTAGNE: And when will the Roman Catholic Church have a new pope? This all begins basically as of this evening?

POGGIOLI: Well, the cardinals will meet on Monday for the first time formally, and we should get a date shortly after that. Benedict issued a decree this week allowing cardinals to move up the start date of the conclave from a minimum of 15 days after the papacy ends, but not all cardinals agree in speeding up the election process. They don't know each other very well. They want to get a chance to know each other. And one of the key new job requirements has been introduced precisely by Benedict's resignation.

It was a decision hailed by analysts as courageous, but many church officials worry that the resignation will basically weaken the papacy, removing the semi-divine nature of the institution and exposing future popes to possible pressure to step down, either from the outside or from the inside of the church. So they'll want to find a candidate able to resist any kind of pressure.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli speaking to us from Rome on the departure from the Vatican of Pope Benedict XVI. Thank you very much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Renee.

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