Pope Benedict XVI flies away from Vatican for last time - but his shadow will remain

Latest: 85-year-old pontiff is currently being flown to the papal retreat at Castel Gandolfo

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At 4.45pm today, Pope Benedict XVI put his pen down for the final time in the Apostolic Palace, and with a walking stick in one hand, he left the building to be taken by limousine the short distance to the Vatican’s helipad.

Soon after he began the short flight by helicopter to the papal summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, 15 miles south of Rome, to spend the remaining few hours of his pontificate, before entering the history books as the first pope in modern times to abdicate.

Having joined Twitter amid a flurry of hype just over two months ago, the Pope posted his last tweet to followers: “Thank you for your love and support. May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the centre of your lives.”

This arch-traditionalist who tore up the rules in his final weeks as pontiff, was expected to spend the evening quietly. Holy See spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the final hours would be “normal, calm; he’ll have dinner. It will be a simple evening, I think”.

At 8pm, when his term of office ended, his papal ring will have been taken away and destroyed.

Benedict is expected to move into his converted monastery in the south-west corner of the Vatican City at the end of March, once his successor has been elected. Meanwhile, thoughts are turning to the coming conclave.

Once all 115 cardinals have gathered in Rome, a date for the elaborate process of electing a new pope can be scheduled. The Vatican seems to want an election by mid-March so the new pope can be installed in office before Palm Sunday on 24 March.

That would allow an air of normality to return to the Holy City, even if the shadow of the Emeritus Pope will never be far out of sight nor mind.