Benedict becomes 1st pope in 600 years to resign

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CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy -- Benedict XVI has become the first pope in 600 years to resign, ending an eight-year pontificate shaped by struggles to move the church past sex abuse scandals and to reawaken Christianity in an indifferent world.

The Swiss Guards standing at attention in Castel Gandolfo shut the gates of the palazzo shortly after 8 p.m. Thursday (2 p.m. EST), symbolically closing the doors on a papacy whose legacy will be most marked by the way it ended -- a resignation instead of a death.

In a final farewell to his cardinals as pope, Benedict tried to dispel concerns about the unprecedented future awaiting the Catholic Church, with one reigning and one retired pope living side-by-side. He pledged his "unconditional reverence and obedience" to his successor.

His arms raised, the aging Benedict appeared at the balcony of the palazzo where he will spend the first few months of his retirement. The crowds cheering wildly, he said he was happy to be "surrounded by the beauty of creation" on this unique day.

As of 8 p.m., he said to applause, he would no longer be pope.

"I am simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this Earth," Benedict said, as well-wishers wiped tears from their eyes.

Benedict, 85, reached out to the wider world electronically, sending a final tweet from his Twitter account, (at)Pontifex, shortly before his departure from the Vatican: "Thank you for your love and support. May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the centre of your lives."

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