Pope's Goodbye 'Like the Retirement Party for Your Favorite Professor'

PHOTO: Pope Benedict XVI delivers his blessing during his last Angelus noon prayer, from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peters Square, at the Vatican, Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013.
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The party for the world's most prominent soon-to-be retiree began today when Pope Benedict XVI hosted his final audience as pontiff in St. Peter's Square.

More than 50,000 tickets were requested for the event, according to the Vatican, while the city of Rome planned for 250,000 people to flood the streets.

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With his belongings packed up, Pope Benedict XVI will spend the night, his final one as pope, in the Apostolic Palace.

The pontiff, 85, who is an avid writer, will be able to take his personal notes with him. However, all official documents relating to his papacy will be sent to the Vatican archives.

On Thursday, Pope Benedict XVI will take his last meeting as pontiff with various dignitaries and the cardinals, said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican Press Office.

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While not all of the cardinals are in Rome, it is possible that among the princes of the church saying farewell to the pope could be the man who will succeed him.

"I think the overall tone is going to be gratitude. From the cardinals' perspective, it'll be like the retirement party for your favorite professor," said Christopher Bellitto, a professor at Kean University in New Jersey who has written nine books on the history of the church.

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Pope Benedict XVI will depart the Vatican walls in the afternoon, taking a 15-minute helicopter ride to Castel Gandolfo, the papal retreat just outside of Rome, where he will live while his new Vatican quarters undergo a renovation.

Around sunset, the pontiff is expected to greet the public from his window in the palace, which overlooks the small town square, for the last time as pope.

At 8 p.m. local time, the papal throne will be vacated. The man known as Pope Benedict XVI for the past eight years will take on a new title: Pope Emeritus.

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The announcement that Benedict XVI would be the first pope to resign in 600 years shocked the world and left the Vatican with the task of creating new rules for an event that was unprecedented in the modern church.

"Even for the historical life of the church, some of this is brand new territory," said Matthew Bunson, general editor of the "Catholic Almanac" and author of "We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI."

"The Vatican took a great deal of care in sorting through this," he said. "This is establishing a precedent."

Along with Benedict's new title, he will still be allowed to wear white, a color traditionally reserved for the pope.

He'll still be called Your Holiness. However, the Swiss Guards, who are tasked with protecting the pope, will symbolically leave his side at 8 p.m. Thursday.

His Ring of the Fisherman, kissed by thousands of the faithful over the years, will be crushed, according to tradition.

Not much is known about the pope's health.

In his resignation statement, the pontiff said his physical strength has deteriorated in the past few months because of "an advanced age."

He also mentioned the "strength of mind and body" necessary to lead the more-than-1-billion Catholics worldwide.

If he is able to, Bellitto believes the pope will keep writing, perhaps on the Holy Trinity, a topic of great interest to him.

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As the pope emeritus settles into the final chapter of his life, experts have said it is likely he will stay out of the public realm.

"[Pope Benedict XVI] has moved very deliberately in this process," Bunson said, "with an eye toward making the transition as smooth, as regal, as careful as possible for the election of his successor."

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