As Pope Benedict XVI Exits, Catholic Church Faces An Identity Crisis

After greeting cardinals in the Vatican, Pope Benedict boarded a helicopter and flew to the papal summer residence south of Rome on Thursday. With his resignation official, the Papal Swiss Guard, which has served popes since the 16th century, will prepare for the arrival of his successor, whoever that may be. Audie Cornish talks to Sylvia Poggioli.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Pope Benedict XVI is now pope emeritus.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH BELLS)

CORNISH: Bells tolled as Benedict left the Vatican by helicopter. Vatican TV followed the entire 15-minute flight to the papal summer residence.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

CORNISH: Once there, the people spoke to the large crowd that had gathered to greet him.

POPE BENEDICT XVI: (Italian spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

CORNISH: He said thank you and good night.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has been covering Pope Benedict's last day on the job. And she joins us now from Rome. And, Sylvia, it sounds like this was quite the scene.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Oh, it was really quite emotional but it was also very simple. It didn't have the usual Vatican pomp and circumstance. But the moment the papacy ended was very theatrical.

At 8 P.M. sharp Rome time, the Swiss Guards - who've been protecting popes for more than 500 years - shut the massive doors of the Castelgandolfo summer residence behind them and went off-duty, because their service to protect the pontiff was over, at least for now.

Earlier, on his arrival at the residence, Benedict made his last public appearance as pope and told the crowd: I am now a simple pilgrim who begins the last stage of his pilgrimage on this Earth.

CORNISH: And Benedict got to say goodbye to his cardinals at the Vatican this morning. Did he give them any instructions on how they should choose the next pope?

POGGIOLI: Well, you know, he was not expected to make any formal remarks. But certainly what seemed to be an attempt to reassure those who fear a conflict could emerge between a serving pope and a retired pope, Benedict promised the future pontiff his unconditional reverence and obedience.

Now, the cardinals are really facing a new task. They have to find a candidate who can create a completely new papal model. The resignation has been defined by one cardinal as slightly destabilizing. Many cardinals see the resignation as stripping the papacy of its semi-divine nature and potentially exposing future popes to pressure to step down, either by external forces or even lobbies within the church.

CORNISH: So what happens next?

POGGIOLI: Well, the cardinals will have their first formal meeting Monday. We should learn the date of the start of the conclave shortly after that. Benedict made some last-minute rules changes that allow the cardinals to move up the conclave, but not all the cardinals want to shorten the period of consultations.

They need to get to know each other much better and they face some really big issues: the sex abuse scandal and cover-ups of predator priests have tainted many of the cardinals themselves. The scandal of lack of transparency at the Vatican Bank will require a pope with better financial and management skills. There's the continuing hemorrhage of priests and dwindling number of followers in Western - secular Western societies, while the number of faithful are growing in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

Here, at the headquarters of the Catholic Church, there's a real big identity crisis. And the cardinals are going to have to choose which way to go - whether to continue an inward looking conservative path or to open up to the broader world of the faithful and introduce more collegiality, as had been indicated by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council 50 years ago.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli, speaking with us from Rome about the Pope's last day on the job. Sylvia, thank you.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Audie.

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