Pope Benedict XVI rode on his helicopter into the sunset this evening, on his final day as head of the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict will officially step down at 8 p.m. Rome time, but he already headed for the papal Summer residence, where he will stay until his Vatican apartment is ready. Before leaving, the pope addressed the church's cardinals, saying, "Among you is the future pope, to whom I promise my unconditional reverence and obedience." After his resignation, Benedict will continue to wear white and will be addressed as "his holiness" and "pope emeritus."
Cardinals will begin meeting soon to choose the successor. They're likely looking for someone with a good stage presence, who can inspire the public, handle the media, and keep a good grip on the Church's inner workings. The hope is also that the new leader will not have a shady connection to the child sex abuse scandal. Controversy has surrounded the church leadership up until Benedict's final days. Italian newspaper La Repubblica recently reported about a "gay lobby" within the Vatican and alleged a series of scandals involving sex and money sparked Benedict's decision to resign. The Vatican denied the story as deplorable gossip.
Pope Benedict XVI's legacy will begin to be shaped while he's still alive. After causing an uproar for saying condoms don't help HIV prevention during a trip to Africa, for example, he changed course and said contraception is a "first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality." Some hope the pope's successor will be more open-minded about social issues like gay marriage and sexuality. But since the cardinals who will choose him were all appointed by the very conservative Pope Benedict XVI or John Paul II, the next pope will likely share their conservative doctrine. Until we know who the next leader will be, take a look at Pope Benedict XVI's final day in Rome.