February 28, 2013 / 4:15 PM / 6 years ago

Pope leaves Vatican before abdication

People in Saint Peter's Square in the Vatican City watch a giant screen of the helicopter waiting to carry Pope Benedict XVI to the papal summer residence at Castelgandolfo, February 28, 2013. Pope Benedict slips quietly from the world stage on Thursday after a private last goodbye to his cardinals and a short flight to a country palace to enter the final phase of his life "hidden from the world". REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini (VATICAN - Tags: RELIGION)

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict left the Vatican on Thursday and headed to the papal summer residence where he will become the first pontiff in six centuries to resign instead of ruling for life.

A white Italian air force helicopter lifted off from the Vatican’s heliport to fly the 85-year-old pope to Castel Gandolfo, just south of Rome, where at 8 p.m. (1900 GMT) he will resign and leave the papacy vacant.

Before heading south, the helicopter circled Vatican City and flew over the Colosseum and other Rome landmarks to give the pontiff one last view of the city where he is also bishop.

Bells rang out from St Peter’s Basilica and churches all over the city as his helicopter passed overhead.

Before boarding the helicopter, Benedict said goodbye to monsignors, nuns, Vatican staff and Swiss guards in the San Damaso courtyard of the Holy See’s apostolic palace. Many of his staff had tears in their eyes as the helicopter left.

Cardinals will start preparatory meetings on Friday to decide when to start a conclave to elect a new pope.

Just before he took off, the pope sent his last Tweet from an account that was opened only in December in blast of publicity, before he announced his shock decision to abdicate.

“Thank you for your love and support. May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the center of your lives,” Benedict said.

Reporting By Philip Pullella;editing by Barry Moody

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