Pontiffs don’t have exit interviews, since most of them don’t retire or resign. Today, though, the cardinals gathered for one last audience with Pope Benedict XVI, his last official meeting as head of the Roman Catholic Church. The affection for the outgoing Pope is evident, even as the cardinals must already be considering whom to select as his replacement (via Deacon Greg and Ta Deum):

In his address, now-Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI pledged obedience to his successor, in a move intended to quell concerns that any public statements would create confusion during the tenure of the next Pontiff:

In remarks Thursday to the cardinals, broadcast on Vatican television, the pope pledged to show “unconditional reverence and obedience” to the next pope. The vow could lay to rest fears that the presence of a living, retired pope in the Vatican would reduce the power of the next elected head of the Roman Catholic Church.

Thursday is set to be a quiet day for the pontiff. After bidding farewell to the cardinals, his helicopter ride to Castel Gandolfo will give him one last aerial view of the Vatican while he is still in charge of it.

Pope Benedict’s resignation officially goes into effect at 8 p.m. local time. At that hour, the doors of Castel Gandolfo will close and the Swiss Guards charged with guarding the reigning pope will go off duty.

I doubt that anyone in the Vatican had real fears that the Pope Emeritus wanted to interfere with his successor. Benedict XVI wants to let go of those concerns; if he wanted to retain control, he would never have broached the idea of retirement.

After saying his goodbyes, the Pope Emeritus left the Vatican, on his way to board a helicopter for the short ride to Castel Gandolfo:

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Via Twitchy, Benedict XVI and a few colleagues board the helicopter:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=CKa8OTjcdxU

CNN correspondent and National Catholic Reporter analyst John Allen explains what happens next:

Meanwhile, perhaps this is a good moment for some self-reflection on the part of American media outlets, too. Media Research Center has tracked the coverage of Benedict XVI’s retirement, and they’re underwhelmed by the result, especially from major broadcast media:

A frail, ailing 85-year-old man announces he doesn’t have the strength to continue as the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion people. With the humility of one whose entire life has been in service to God and his Church, he says he will retire to quietly live out his remaining years.

ABC, CBS and NBC have never been fans of Pope Benedict XVI. They saw the former Cardinal Ratzinger as a “hard-liner” for “strenuously condemning divorce, homosexuality, and abortion,” as ABC’s Dan Harris put it in 2008. But the broadcast networks’ coverage of Benedict and the Catholic Church in the weeks since he announced his retirement has been bizarre – relentless negativity punctuated by often inappropriate humor and personal attacks.

From Benedict’s Feb. 11 resignation through the evening of Feb. 27, the day before it took effect, the networks referred to the Catholic Church as a troubled institution 122 times and aired the word “scandal” 87 times in 112 reports. Anchors and reporters suggested that the Church must modernize (32 times) and pressed for change in issues regarding women (7 times) and gays (13 times). At times, they trivialized the first resignation of a Pope since the 1500s as “worthy of a Dan Brown novel.”(ABC’s Harris again.) and sensationalized it by entertaining theories about other reasons Benedict might be stepping down.

The night before the Pope’s resignation took effect, ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos said he was “known as God’s Rottweiler.”

Actually, I’m not sure that’s objectionable.  That nickname has been pretty widely known for quite a long time, and I don’t believe that Benedict XVI would be entirely displeased with it.  However, on the rest of MRC’s criticism of the coverage, they’re spot on.  Instead of taking the time to understand the role of the Pontiff and the actual doctrine of the Catholic Church, the media has treated this like a secular succession where all the rules can be rewritten to suit the fashions and tastes of the day.  That misses the point in a very large way.

Let’s hope the coverage improves during the conclave.

Update: I’ll be on the Hugh Hewitt show at 7:30 ET to talk to guest host Guy Benson to discuss this — and to make a pretty cool announcement. Be sure to tune in!