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By NBF News
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Pope Benedict XVI made what is likely to be his last public appearance yesterday, thanking cheering crowds for their 'friendship' as he stepped down as leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.

'I am no longer the pope but I am still in the church. I'm just a pilgrim who is starting the last part of his pilgrimage on this earth,' he said.

Benedict's historic resignation as pope took effect from 8pm (2 pm, ET).

His final words and a blessing were given to some 10,000 people who had gathered at Castel Gandolfo, the summer papal residence, to bid him an emotional farewell.

'With all my heart and prayers and thoughts and strengths, I'd like to work for the common good and for the good of the church and mankind,' he said.  'I feel very much supported by your sympathy. We will go together ahead with the Lord, for the good of the church and the world. Thank you very much.'

Smiling slightly, he made the sign of the Cross to bless the crowds and disappeared into the building. It is likely to be the last time he would be seen in public.

At 8pm, the Swiss Guards, the soldiers who traditionally protect the pope, ceremonially left the gates of the residence and seals were placed on the entrance to the pope's Vatican apartment, the Vatican said.

The first pope to resign in nearly 600 years, his departure ushers in a period of great uncertainty for the Roman Catholic Church as the cardinals work to elect the next pontiff.

Benedict earlier left Vatican City for the last time as pope amid pomp and ceremony.

An honor guard of Swiss Guards lined up to bid him farewell as, looking frail and carrying a cane, he left the papal apartment to applause from senior Vatican officials and staff.

The sound of bells from St. Peter's Basilica chimed across the city of Rome as the helicopter carrying him to Castel Gandolfo soared overhead, passing above landmarks like the Colosseum.

Although Benedict will eventually return to Vatican City to live out his days, he will never again set foot there as pope.

The pope had the right to wear the symbolic Fisherman's Ring until 8pm yesterday, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said.

After that, the ring and Benedict's papal seal would be 'destroyed' by means of making scratch marks so that they can no longer be used to seal documents, he added.

The process of transition to a new pope would then begin.

Benedict, who will be known as 'pontiff emeritus,' will spend the next few weeks at the peaceful, hilltop Castel Gandolfo residence before moving to a small monastery within the Vatican grounds.