Pope Benedict XVI met with cardinals from around the world in his final hours as leader of 1.1 billion Catholics, and promised “unconditional reverence and obedience” to his successor.
Benedict urged his cardinals on Thursday to work in unity so that the College of Cardinals is “like an orchestra” where “agreement and harmony” can be reached — a clear message to the conclave that will pick the next pope.
He said he would pray for the cardinals in coming days and weeks as they choose his successor.
An estimated 100 cardinals were present at the private meeting, Al Jazeera’s Paul Brennan reported from Rome.
The 85-year-old German-born pope is the first pontiff to resign since the Middle Ages.
Benedict stunned the world when he announced his momentous decision in a surprise speech in Latin on February 11, saying he no longer had the “strength of mind and body” to carry on in a fast-changing modern world.
“I took this step in full awareness of its gravity and novelty but with profound serenity of spirit,” the pope told a cheering crowd of 150,000 pilgrims in St Peter’s Square in his final public farewell on Wednesday.
The theologian pope – a shy academic whose papacy has been overshadowed by infighting within the Roman Catholic Church and a sex abuse scandal – said his eight-year pontificate had seen “sunny days” and “stormy waters” but added: “I never felt alone”.
According to Al Jazeera’s Brennan, the retiring pope will be flown by an airforce helicopter to Castel Gandolfo, the papal’s summer residence at about 5:00pm local time.
His last public appearance will be a short greeting to residents and well-wishers at Castel Gandolfo in the late afternoon after his 15-minute helicopter flight from the Vatican.
The Vatican has said that the moment the pope’s powers officially expire at 19:00 GMT, or at 8pm, the ex-pontiff will officially be known by the new title of “Roman Pontiff Emeritus” although he will still be addressed as “Your Holiness”.
He will also keep his papal name of “Benedict XVI” and will not be referred to his original name Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Between Benedict’s resignation and the election of the next pope, the cardinal, referred to as the “Chamberlain”, Italy’s Tarcisio Bertone, will run the day-to-day affairs of the church.
Not all cardinals have welcomed Benedict’s decision to resign.
Cardinal George Pell, the 71-year old top cleric from Australia, described Benedict’s resignation as destabilising to the church, and questioned his governance skills.
Pell, Australia’s lone representative at the secret conclave to elect the 266th pope, said Benedict was a “brilliant teacher” but “government wasn’t his strong point”.
“I think I prefer somebody who can lead the Church and pull it together a bit,” Pell told commercial television.
He also said the decision to resign set a worrying precedent for the church.
“People who, for example, might disagree with a future pope, will mount a campaign to get him to resign,” Pell said.
In a later radio interview, when questioned about his governance views, he pointed to the so-called “Vatileaks” scandal, in which Benedict’s butler leaked secret papal memos revealing intrigues between rival groups of cardinals, .
“I think the governance is done by most of the people around the pope and that wasn’t always done brilliantly,” Pell said.