Benedict XVI, the 265th successor to St. Peter at the helm of the Catholic Church, left the papacy on Thursday to become a simple "pilgrim who is starting the last phase of his pilgrimage on this earth."

The German pontiff, who turns 86 in two months, left the Vatican of his own volition and under his own power, boarded a helicopter and was ferried to the papal summer residence in Castel Galdolfo, some 30 kilometers (18 miles) from Rome.

Amid tears - including those in the eyes of his secretary Georg Ganswein, who could not contain his emotions - Benedict bade farewell to the Vatican personnel in the Courtyard of San Damaso.

At times, Benedict also appeared to become emotional, but he immediately recovered his smile and his calm demeanor, which he also exhibited when he greeted from the balcony of Castel Gandolfo the some 10,000 faithful who waited for him below.

The erstwhile pontiff will remain at Castel Gandolfo until restoration work has been completed on a monastery within the Vatican that will serve as the retirement home for His Holiness Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus.

The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger announced on Feb. 11 that he planned to step down from the papacy on the last day of this month, becoming the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years.

He began his last day as the leader of the world's more than 1 billion Catholics by bidding farewell to the College of Cardinals and vowing "unconditional obedience to the new pope."

"In these eight years we have faithfully lived beautiful moments of radiant light along the Church's journey along with times when clouds gathered in the skies. We have tried to serve Christ and His Church with a deep and total love, which is the soul of our ministry. We have given the hope that comes to us from Christ and that alone can light the way," the pope told the gathering of cardinals, one of whom will be the future pontiff.

The papal conclave to elect the successor to Pope Benedict XVI is expected to start in the next few weeks.

Under the Holy See's constitution, the conclave should begin between 15 and 20 days after the papacy becomes vacant to give time for all of the cardinals to arrive in Rome. EFE