VATICAN CITY -- With the clock ticking away the waning hours until the end of Benedict XVI's papacy, the pope promised "unconditional reverence and obedience" to his successor in his final greetings to cardinals before retiring.
Attention among Vatican observers is now shifting to the debate over the weary pontiff's legacy and the process that will select his replacement.
Benedict urged his cardinals Thursday to work in unity so that the College of Cardinals is "like an orchestra" where "agreement and harmony" can be reached -- a clear message to the conclave that will pick the next pope. He said he would pray for the cardinals in coming days and weeks as they choose his successor.
Officials say that Benedict will leave the Vatican at precisely 8 p.m. local time (2 p.m. ET), departing by helicopter for Castel Gandolfo, the traditional papal summer residence 15 miles south of Rome. At that moment, he will be transformed from pope into pontiff emeritus, his views will no longer be seen as infallible, and the pope's role as the leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics will officially be a "sede vacante" -- empty seat.
But for most Vatican watchers, attention has already moved on from Benedict, who may still make a brief final appearance for official photographers or a statement before boarding the papal helicopter.
In his last general audience Wednesday, Benedict thanked more than 100,000 people gathered in St. Peter's Square for their support and he asked for their prayers before issuing a warning for his successor about the lack of privacy that would come along with the position.
His successor, Benedict said, "will no longer have any privacy. He will belong forever and totally to everyone and to all the church."
All indications are that Benedict will relish his privacy at Castel Gandolfo for the next few months, and, after that, at a private residence being constructed for him on the Vatican grounds, where Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said Benedict will dedicate himself to prayer, reflection, study and writing.
To those in St. Peter's Square early on Benedict's final day as pontiff, the transition is a difficult one for the faithful.
"It's a difficult time for the church, and a difficult time for Benedict and he has said he feels too weak to do what must be done," said Rosemarie Acot, a Philippine nun who said she prays in St. Peter's Basilica most mornings.
One question being debated among Vatican observers is the extent to which recent scandals -- ranging from reports of gay clergy working in the Vatican and reports of sexual misconduct and cover-ups to charges of a lack of transparency -- will impact the way Benedict's eight-year papacy is viewed.
"I have never met anyone who didn't see Benedict as a holy man and an effective spiritual leader," said Alistair Sear, a Rome-based church historian. "The question is whether these lapses in other areas, whether these likely failures as an administrator will be what he is ultimately remembered for."
There is also a great deal of speculation over the process of the conclave, the process that will select the next pope. The Vatican is expected to announce the dates of the conclave soon after Benedict's departure -- perhaps as soon as Friday. And, already, the conventional wisdom is that the date the Vatican selects will have an impact on who is selected as the next pope.
"If the conclave is called quickly, it will favor the most visible cardinals, the ones already well known among cardinal-electors," said author and Vatican watcher John Thavis, referring to the 115 cardinals under the age of 80 who have said they will attend the conclave.
That was the case in 2005, when a conclave held just 16 days after the death of John Paul II ended up selecting the College of Cardinal's dean, German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Benedict XVI.
At 8 p.m. sharp, Benedict becomes the first pontiff in 600 years to resign. The doors of the palazzo will shut and the Swiss Guards will go off duty.
By Eric J. Lyman, Special for USA TODAY
Contributing: Associated Press