Pope Benedict has ended his eight-year reign, becoming the first pontiff in six centuries to resign instead of ruling for life.
The papacy became officially vacant at 8pm Thursday (8am today NZT) in keeping with the pope's wishes when he announced his decision to resign on February 11.
The yellow and white papal flag was lowered and the Swiss Guard sentries withdrew from the entrance to Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence south of Rome, as the massive wooden doors of the hilltop building were closed.
The pope flew there by helicopter less than three hours earlier.
Benedict said farewell to Vatican staff and flew to Castel Gandolfo where he will stay until April when renovations are completed on a convent in the Vatican that will be his new home.
Benedict has pledged unconditional obedience to whoever succeeds him to guide the Roman Catholic Church at one of the most crisis-ridden periods in its 2,000-year history, as he bade an emotional farewell to cardinals.
"I will continue to be close to you in prayer, especially in the next few days, so that you are fully accepting of the action of the Holy Spirit in the election of the new pope," he told cardinals in the Vatican's frescoed Sala Clementina.
"May the Lord show you what he wants. Among you there is the future pope, to whom I today declare my unconditional reverence and obedience," he said.
Related links: Pope Benedict ends pontificate, leaving papacy vacant ~ TVNZ
Pope Benedict's last day: 'sede vacante' as pontiff tells the world 'Thank you and good night' ~ The Telegraph
Pope Benedict XVI steps down ~ Sydney Morning Herald
Pope's last words: Thank you for your friendship and love ~ Catholic News Agency
Church in limbo with Pope's departure ~ Stuff