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Pope Benedict officially retires

Pope Benedict greeting Toronto's Cardinal Thomas Collins at the Vatican, Feb. 28, 2013. REUTERS

Pope Benedict officially retired on Thursday afternoon 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.”

In keeping with his shy and modest ways, there was no public ceremony to mark the first papal resignation in six centuries and no solemn declaration ending his nearly eight-year reign at the head of the world’s largest church.

His last public appearance was a short greeting to residents and well-wishers at Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence south of Rome, in the late afternoon after his 15-minute helicopter hop from the Vatican.

When the resignation became official at 2 p.m. ET, Benedict was relaxing inside the 17th century palace. Swiss Guards on duty at the main gate to indicate the pope’s presence within quit their posts and returned to Rome to await their next pontiff.

Earlier on Thursday, Pope Benedict met for the last time with a group of cardinals in the Vatican. Addressing the cardinals on his final day in office, Benedict called on the Roman Catholic Church to unite behind his successor and pledged his own “unconditional” obedience to the next pontiff.

Speaking after the meeting, the cardinals seemed moved.

“We all met together and he greeted us like brothers, in a very simple manner. It went very well, it was a beautiful meeting,” Portuguese cardinal Jose Saraiva Martens said.

Chilean cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuiz Ossa said, “We were with the pope until a few moments ago. It was very emotional. He made me think of many conversations I’ve had with him. I will always remember the way he showed us his serenity, his inner peace and his happiness.”

Avoiding any special ceremony, Benedict used his weekly general audience on Wednesday to bid an emotional farewell to more than 150,000 people who packed St. Peter’s Square to cheer for him and wave signs of support.

Editor-in-chief of Catholic television channel KTV, Martin Lohmann, said the pope’s words had been a source of encouragement for many Catholics.

“He always wanted to resign behind Christ and be his servant and in this way as he said, ‘I am a simple worker in the vineyard of the Lord’. He then, in the same way, has steered this papal ship for eight years,” he said.

“I believe he is one of the greatest pope’s we’ve had.”

The faithful near St. Peter’s Square said the day would be an emotional one.

“His departure is emotional with his act of humility and fantastic courage. Only a man of great spirituality like Benedict XVI could do it and naturally there is the emotion in waiting to see who his successor will be,” said Massimo Gandolfini.

“I feel very emotional and sad in a totally profound way but I’m convinced that the Holy Spirit will manage to continue to lead his Church, our Church,” added Lina Avarello.