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Pope Benedict XVI leaves Vatican for the last time as head of the Roman Catholic Church

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The Pope has left the Vatican for the last time as pontiff and flown to his Castel Gandolfo residence on his final day as head of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Benedict XVI left the Vatican palace and flew by helicopter to the nearby Castel Gandolfo papal residence where he is expected to spend the next two months. 

Benedict tweeted for the last time, "Thank you for your love and support. May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the centre of your lives." 

His account @Pontifex has amassed more than 1.5 million followers over the course of 39 tweets since December 2012.

The 85-year-old spent Thursday morning meeting cardinals of the church who are responsible for choosing his successor. As he addressed them in the Sala Clementine in the Vatican, he urged them to work together and said that he would be praying for them over the coming weeks as they choose his successor. 

"May God show you what He wants from you. Among you, in the College of Cardinals, there is the future pope to whom already today I promise my unconditional reverence and obedience," he said.

His abdication comes into effect at 8pm local time on Thursday evening. Once he has arrived at the luxurious rural palace, he will make his final appearance as pope on the balcony and bless the gathered crowds.

Once he has abdicated, his fisherman's signet ring will be destroyed using a silver hammer. This symbolic moment marks the end of his authority and also ensures that the ring, which is used to officially seal and authenticate documents, is not used fraudulently.

When his papal duties are over, he will swap his trademark red shoes, rumoured to be by Prada, for some brown loafers given to him in Leon, Mexico last year. He will however continue to wear his white cassock. After discussion with his peers, he decided that he will be referred to as 'Your Holiness Benedict XVI' in future. 

His stay at Castel Gandolfo will only be temporary. Once renovation work is completed on a modest cloistered convent within the Vatican walls, Benedict will return to the state where, he says, he will see out his remaining days "hidden to the world" and living "a life dedicated to prayer".

The Vatican has been faced with the unusual task of preparing a retirement package for the pope who is the first to step down since 1415. It is believed he will receive 2,500 euros (around £2,160) a month. Once Benedict has officially abdicated, the 117 Vatican cardinals who are tasked with electing the next pontiff will convene to begin informal discussions on choosing the next pope. 

The earliest date allowed under current Holy See regulations for the College of Cardinals to decide on their new leader is March 15. But the Vatican has hinted that they might convene before this date. 

The current law states cardinals that should wait 15 days after the papacy becomes vacant before launching a conclave to allow all eligible cardinals to get to Rome, making March 15 the presumed start. However, this rule assumed a papal death and funeral so had to allow time for the cardinals to gather in Rome. 

He made his final public appearance on Wednesday to a huge crowd of faithful followers, the world's media and tourists who gathered in St Peter's Square. In the address to about 150,000 people, the Pontiff thanked his cardinals, colleagues and devout Catholics for their support since his shock announcement to become the first pope for 600 years to resign. 

"Loving the church means knowing how to make hard and difficult choices with the good of the church, and not oneself, in first place," he said. Crowds gathered from the early morning in the Vatican, Rome, to bid a final farewell to the frail leader who arrived in his 'Popemobile' to make the emotional public appearance. 

The Pope made history when he announced that he was to stand down due to "advanced age", becoming the first to do so for six centuries. He gave some hint of the impending changes the day before his announcement when he tweeted, "We must trust in the mighty power of God’s mercy. We are all sinners, but His grace transforms us and makes us new." 

His official announcement read: "After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry." 

Previously known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he was one of the oldest new popes in history when he was elected on April 19 2005, replacing Pope John Paul II.