MOSCOW, February 28 (RIA Novosti) – The main post in Vatican is vacant as of 8:00 p.m. local time (19:00 GMT), after Pope Benedict XVI left the Apostolic Palace on Thursday, heading for the papal retreat at Castel Gandolfo.
Earlier on Thursday, he addressed all the cardinals in the Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace, giving them a blessing and shaking hands.
Benedict XVI also bid his followers farewell on Thursday in the last message on his Twitter account, which was later closed.
“Thank you for your love and support. May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the center of your lives,” he wrote.
Pope Benedict, who became the 265th Pope in 2005 following his predecessor John Paul II’s death, announced his resignation due to old age and failing health on February 11.
The last pope to step down voluntarily was Gregory XII in 1415.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said earlier that the conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI could begin before March 15 if all the cardinals were present in Rome.
Under church rules, the conclave is to begin between 15 to 20 days after the papacy becomes vacant, to give cardinals time to make their way to Rome.