Pope Benedict XVI made his final public act as pope on Thursday afternoon, when he blessed an applauding a crowd from the balcony of his temporary retreat in Castel Gandolfo, a hilltop town south of Rome where popes have summered for centuries.

“I am no longer the pope, but I’m still in the church. I’m just a pilgrim who is starting the last part of his pilgrimage on this Earth,” Benedict said.

“Thank you all. Good night,” he said, turning around and entering the retreat.

PHOTOS: Pope Benedict’s Final Farewell

Benedict’s retirement becomes official today at 8 p.m. local time, when seals are placed on the doors of the papal apartments and bells start to ring throughout Rome.

The seals and the destruction of the chunky “Fisherman’s Ring” worn by Benedict XVI until the very last moment, will be the concluding act of 7 years, 10 months and 9 days of papacy that, in Benedict’s words was filled with “light and joy” but also had difficult moments when “the Lord seemed to be sleeping.”

Benedict led the Church through hard times, marked by sexual abuse and financial scandals. At the same time, he tried to reinforce conservative positions — advocating against women’s ordination, religious pluralism, homosexuality and gay marriages.

On February 11, Benedict shocked the world by announcing his decision to resign — the first pope to do that in six centuries — due to advanced age and declining health.

PHOTOS: Pope Benedict XVI’s Reign

Today, after posting his last tweet @pontifex thanking everybody, Benedict flew into history by leaving the papacy in a helicopter and opening an unprecedented chapter for the church.

For the first time ever, there will be two “His Holinesses” living within the Vatican walls: the 266th Pope, or Bishop of Rome, and the Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, who will keep wearing the white papal cassock.

Benedict’s secretary, Monsignor Georg Gaänswein, will serve both “His Holinesses ” — he will live with Benedict at his new home in a monastery near the Vatican gardens, while keeping his day job as prefect of the new pope’s household.

NEWS: Pope Acknowledges ‘Rough Seas’ in Final Address

This raised concerns among some cardinals about potential conflicts. Benedict tried to dissipate them today, when he met more than 100 crying cardinals for a farewell.

“Among you is the future pope, whom I promise my unconditional reverence and obedience,” Benedict said.

Abdicating popes did not have favorable fates in history. Pope Celestine V, the last pope to resign willingly in 1294, was confined to a fortress by Boniface VIII and died there within a year and a half — probably killed, as a hole found in his skull suggests.

Pope Pontian, possibly the first pope to resign in 235 A. D., was condemned to exile in salt mines in Sardinia and died of maltreatment soon after. Others died soon after their abdication.

None lived in Rome, keeping the title of Roman pontiff emeritus or pope emeritus, the papal name and the possibility to be addressed as “his holiness.” Indeed, Benedict himself established this rule three days ago.

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As the Vatican starts the Vacant See this evening, pre-conclave meetings will be held among cardinals who have already reached Rome.

The first meeting is likely to take place on Monday, March 4, and could reveal the date when the secretive procedure to elect Benedict’s successor begins. Benedict issued a decree making it possible for a conclave to take place sooner than the mandatory 15 days from a papacy’s end.

The historic event is being massively followed by the media. So far, 3,641 journalists from 968 outlets of 61 countries have settled in at the Vatican.

Photo: Pope Benedict XVI waving goodbye on his final day. Credit: Rossella Lorenzi