Benedict spending last hours as pope
Pontiff to step down at 20:00 Italian time28 February, 10:45
The 85-year-old German pontiff shocked the world this month by saying he would step down from what is usually a life position because he did not have the physical and mental strength to continue to lead the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
Benedict was set to have a meeting with cardinals in Thursday morning.
At 17:00 Italian time he will fly from the Vatican by helicopter to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo outside Rome.
He will stay at Castel Gandolfo for two months before moving to a monastery inside the Vatican that is currently being renovated. His last public act as pope will be to greet the faithful after arriving at Castel Gandolfo.
He will no longer be pope at 20:00 Italian time. Benedict reiterated that his decision was the for good of the Church as his last general audience on Wednesday. He said the decision was made "in full awareness of its seriousness, but also with a deep serenity of spirit... I asked God to enlighten me to make the right decision for the good of the Church". Benedict also responded to those who criticised the move on the grounds that you "don't climb down from the cross". "I am not abandoning the cross" he said, adding he stayed attached to the "crucified Lord" in a "new way". The Vatican said Tuesday that Benedict XVI will be called 'pope emeritus' or 'Roman pontiff emeritus' after he steps down.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said this week that a pre-conclave meeting of cardinals is likely to take place on Monday March 4. The meeting could reveal the date of the start of the conclave to elect Benedict's successor. On Monday Benedict issued a decree changing the rules of the conclave to make it possible for it take place sooner than the mandatory 15 days from a papacy's end, and so before mid-March.