VATICAN CITY — As the sun set on Rome and on his turbulent eight-year papacy, Pope Benedict XVI, a shy theologian who never seemed entirely at home in the limelight, was whisked by helicopter into retirement on Thursday.
But while Benedict, 85, retires to a life of prayer, study, walks in the garden and piano practice, he leaves in his wake a Vatican hierarchy facing scandals and intrigue that are casting a shadow over the cardinals entrusted with electing his successor in a conclave this month.
Even as he met with the cardinals on his final day as pope, pledging “unconditional reverence and obedience” to his successor and urging the cardinals to “work like an orchestra” harmonizing for the good of the church, the discord was apparent.
On Thursday, the Vatican confirmed reports that it had ordered wiretaps on the phones of some Vatican officials as part of a leaks investigation. Other cardinals were increasingly outspoken about the crisis of governance during Benedict’s papacy.
That failing is expected to be much in the cardinals’ minds as they begin meeting informally on Monday to discuss the state of the papacy and determine when to start the conclave, which could be as soon as next week. Earlier this week, Benedict changed church law to allow the cardinals to start the conclave before the traditional 15-day waiting period after the papacy is vacant.
In his final blessing to the faithful, who gathered outside the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo where he will live for several months, Benedict appeared tired, and even relieved, saying that from now on “I am simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this earth.”
His towering predecessor, John Paul II, wasted away with Parkinson’s disease; Benedict, whose life’s work was aimed at reconciling faith and reason, opted for a short farewell.
“Good night, and thank you,” he said in Italian to the boisterous but small crowds at Castel Gandolfo, just over two weeks after he shocked the world on Feb. 11 by announcing his retirement, the first in the modern history of the church.
Earlier, thousands of people stood in a hushed St. Peter’s Square, forming half-moon crowds around giant video screens showing the pope’s departure as seagulls wheeled in the waning light. Many looked up and waved as his helicopter circled the square. “Viva il Papa!” several shouted. One banner read simply “Danke!!!”
Katie Martin, 29, an aspiring firefighter from Manhattan Beach, Calif., said she delayed her visit to Rome by a week to witness the historic event. “I love my faith,” she said. “I love my church. I have a great love for the Holy Father.”
Like many, Ms. Martin said she was sad to see Benedict’s papacy end. “But I’m also really excited to see what’s next,” she said.
In many ways, Benedict never seemed to fit into his red shoes. He seemed uninterested in the spectacle of power, awkward even raising his arms to greet crowds, forever disappointing photographers. On a 2009 visit to the Holy Land, he did not stop at the muddy pool in the Jordan River where Jesus is believed to have been baptized, passing by on a golf cart instead.
His critics say that on his watch, the Vatican suffered a profound crisis of governance. On Thursday, Panorama magazine reported that the Vatican secretariat of state had ordered wiretaps on the phones of several Vatican prelates as part of an investigation into the scandal in which confidential documents were leaked to the news media and the author of a tell-all book.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Thursday that magistrates of the Vatican “might have authorized some wiretaps or some checks,” but nothing on a significant scale.
Vatican watchers say the wiretapping was a shocking breach of trust and an indication of the high levels of distrust since the leaks scandal. But Father Lombardi dismissed that. The idea of “an investigation that creates an atmosphere of fear of mistrust that will now affect the conclave has no foundation in reality,” he said.
Earlier this week, he said the pope had decided that a dossier on the leaks affair compiled by three cardinals would be shown only to the next pope.
Although Benedict has said that he is retiring “freely and for the good of the church,” leaving its guidance to someone younger and stronger than he, the scandals have weighed on the cardinals entering the conclave. Vatican experts also say that the very notion that a pope can retire is bound to condition the voting.
In one of his concluding acts on Thursday, Benedict addressed more than 100 cardinals who will elect his successor. He told them, “I will be close to you in prayer” as the next leader of the church is chosen. All were appointed either by him or by his predecessor, John Paul, and are thus seen as doctrinal conservatives.
“Among you is also the future pope, whom I promise my unconditional reverence and obedience,” Benedict told the cardinals. It is the pledge that all cardinals make to a new pope, but also seemed to reflect the concern among some prelates about what it will mean to have two popes in the Vatican.
As pope emeritus, Benedict intends to reside in Castel Gandolfo for several months and then return to the Vatican to live in an apartment in a convent whose gardens offer a perfect view of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.
In his final audience on Wednesday, Benedict said that his papacy had been marked by light but also had moments of darkness, when at times, he said, the Lord “seemed to be sleeping.”
There were moments of crisis, as in 2009 when the pope revoked the excommunication of four schismatic bishops, one of whom had denied the scope of the holocaust; and a speech in 2006, when he cited a Byzantine emperor saying that Islam brought things “evil and inhuman.”
Benedict seemed most at ease speaking off the cuff, as he did to priests from the Diocese of Rome last month, where he offered reflections on his experience as a young theologian at the liberalizing Second Vatican Council, which introduced changes he saw as a continuation of church history, not a rupture with it.
Vatican experts said the pope was devastated when the leader of the ultra-traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, whose excommunication he had revoked to global outrage, refused to acknowledge the teachings of Vatican II, a condition of bringing the group back into full communion.
Speaking privately, many in the Vatican hierarchy saw Benedict as a German, with all the stereotypes of the role — reserve, discipline, stubbornness, an aversion to outpourings of emotion. Asked about his strengths, many called him a theologian, some in praise, others with barely disguised contempt, as opposed to a man of government.
Some brimmed with respect for Benedict’s great learning. Long after his papacy has receded from the headlines, “this pope will be remembered for his magisterium,” or his teachings and writings, said Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.
Daniel J. Wakin contributed reporting from Vatican City, and Alan Cowell from Paris.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: February 28, 2013
An earlier version of the credit for a picture with this article showing a helicopter flying over St. Peter’s Square misstated the surname of the photographer. He is Alberto Pizzoli, not Alberto Pizzolialberto.