UPDATE: Pope Benedict XVI leaves the Vatican; pledges obedience to his successor (Photos)

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UPDATE 8:19 a.m.: The Associted Press reports that Pope Benedict XVI has left the Vatican for the last time as pope, flying by helicopter to the Vatican's vacation retreat hours before becoming the first pontiff to resign in 600 years.

As his closest aide wept by his side, Benedict bade farewell to Vatican officials gathered in the San Damaso courtyard of the Apostolic Palace, a corps of Swiss Guards standing by at attention.

Benedict traveled by car to the helipad on the top of the hill of the Vatican gardens and boarded a helicopter along with his secretary, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, for the 15-minute trip to Castel Gandolfo. Bells tolled as the helicopter took off.

Before leaving, Benedict pledged his "unconditional reverence and obedience" to his successor.

PREVIOUSLY: With a promise of "unconditional reverence and obedience" to the man who will take his place, Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday began his last day as head of the Roman Catholic Church.

As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reminded us on Morning Edition, at 8 p.m. in Italy (2 p.m. ET), Benedict will no longer be the pope. The first man to voluntarily give up that post in about 600 years will become "pope emeritus" and begin a life in which he's expected to be out of the public eye. Benedict, 85, has said he no longer has the strength to lead the church.

Benedict's pledge of obedience to his successor came during "an unexpected speech" to the church's cardinals Thursday in Vatican City, The Associated Press writes. According to the wire service:

"Benedict also urged the 'princes' of the church to set aside their differences as they elect the next pope, urging them to be unified so that the College of Cardinals works 'like an orchestra' where 'agreement and harmony' can be reached despite diversity. He said he would pray for the cardinals in coming days as they choose his successor."

At 5 p.m. in Italy (11 a.m. ET) the AP adds, "Benedict will leave the [Vatican City] palace for the last time as pontiff, head to the helipad at the top of the hill in the Vatican gardens and fly to the papal retreat at Castel Gandolfo south of Rome. There, at 8 p.m. sharp, Benedict will become the first pontiff in 600 years to resign. The doors of the palazzo will shut and the Swiss Guards will go off duty, their service protecting the head of the Catholic Church over — for now."

As for what happens after that, as we wrote Wednesday:

John Allen, the senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter who's going to be on the cable news networks a lot in coming weeks as they tap his expertise, told CNN that most of the 100+ cardinals who will cast votes for the next pope are already in Rome. They're "here to say goodbye" to Benedict, he said.

He expects they will meet Monday in what's known as a "general congregation" to set a date for the conclave — the session at which they vote for a pope. Allen expects the conclave will start "sometime around the 8th or 9th of March." The cardinals' goal will be to have a pope chosen before Palm Sunday, which this year falls on March 24.

Allen's "quick course in conclave 101" is online here. One thing it doesn't take into account is the word this week that Benedict said the cardinals don't have to wait for 15 days after he steps down to begin.

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