EDITOR'S NOTE: Register editor in chief Jeanette De Melo will talk with Rome correspondent Edward Penitn today on Register Radio at 2 p.m Eastern Time or listen online any time.

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI pledged his “unconditional reverence and obedience” to his successor at a final meeting with cardinals and senior Vatican officials.

Addressing the 144 cardinals present this morning in the Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace, the Holy Father said that he would continue to be close to them in prayer, “especially in the next few days, so that you may all be fully docile to the action of the Holy Spirit in the election of the new pope.”

“May the Lord show you what is willed by him,” Pope Benedict said. “Among you, among the College of Cardinals, there is also the future pope, to whom, here today, I already promise my unconditional reverence and obedience.”

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters the public pledge of obedience by Benedict XVI to the future pope “wasn’t obligatory, but a sign of how he’s living this moment.”

Among those present at Pope Benedict’s final audience were also heads of Vatican offices, their deputies, as well as those who have worked closely with the Pope on liturgical ceremonies. Many of the cardinals were over the age of 80 and therefore are not able to vote in the conclave. Each of those present had the opportunity to personally say farewell to the Pope.

Referring to the disciples of Emmaus, Pope Benedict said it had been “a joy for me to walk with you” and, as he did yesterday, thanked the cardinals for the closeness and advice that had been a “great help to me and my ministry.”

He said that together they had tried to serve the Church with “deep and total love” and called on the Lord to help them “grow in communion” and in “deep unity, so that the College of Cardinals becomes 'like an orchestra,' always contributing 'to a superior harmony of concord.'” The Pope recalled “very beautiful moments of radiant light on the path of the Church, together with moments in which the occasional cloud thickened in the sky.”

The Pope then referred to a quotation from one of his mentors, the Catholic intellectual Romano Guardini, who wrote, “The Church is not an institution devised and built at table, but a living reality. She lives along the course of time by transforming herself, like any living being, yet her nature remains the same. At her heart is Christ.”

Benedict XVI said yesterday’s audience showed that the Church is a “living body, animated by the Holy Spirit, and truly lives by the power of God.” The souls of her members, he added, are awakened like Mary’s, and they offer “their own poverty and humility” to become “capable of giving birth to Christ in the world today.”

“Through the Church, the mystery of the Incarnation remains present forever,” the Pope said. “Christ continues to walk through all times, in all places. Let us remain united, dear brothers, to this mystery, in prayer, especially in daily Eucharist, and thus serve the Church and all humanity. This is our joy that no one can take from us.”


Words of Tribute

Prior to delivering his speech, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, gave a few short words of tribute to the Holy Father. He again thanked the Pope for his example and “selfless witness of apostolic service,” adding that with “deep love” the College of Cardinals “have tried to accompany you on your journey, reliving the experience of the disciples of Emmaus.”

Cardinal Sodano stressed that apostolic succession continues, and will continue, until the Angel of the Apocalypse is heard to proclaim, “There is no longer time. … The mystery of God is finished,” and a new heaven and a new earth is born.

The Italian cardinal ended by saying “Vergelt’s Gott” — a well-known valedictory expression in German meaning  “God reward you.”

Giovanni Maria Vian, editor of L’Osservatore Romano, said the audiences of today and yesterday — the last great public events of Benedict XVI’s pontificate — were “extraordinary and moving” and that the “joyful serenity” so evident in the Pope’s face is his “most enduring legacy.” Without the drama of a death of a pope, he said, this “unforgettable pontificate” has come to an end “in peace and in a new way.”

Father Lombardi told reporters that prior to the start of the meeting Cardinal Sodano had told the cardinals they would all receive a formal letter tomorrow inviting them to attend the general congregation and conclave. 

Father Lombardi also pointed out that each cardinal met the Pope today in order of precedence — an order that will also be repeated during the procession into the Sistine Chapel for the conclave. Cardinals are divided into three ancient levels of seniority: cardinal bishops, cardinal priests and cardinal deacons, although during everyday life in the modern Church the distinctions are inconsequential.

The Vatican announced Benedict XVI will send out his last tweet at 5pm (11am EST) today — the time he leaves the Apostolic Palace for Castel Gandolfo. His @pontifex account will then lie dormant for the next pope if he wishes to continue using the facility.

Also at today’s briefing, the Vatican said that “simple seals” will be placed on the papal apartment and the elevator leading to the papal apartments at 8pm, signifying the beginning of the period sede vacante.  The Pope’s “fisherman’s ring” is also not smashed, as is commonly thought, but damaged, so that it cannot be used as a seal.

The Vatican said there had been 3,641 requests for accreditation, the large majority of them — 70% — connected with television.

Vatican television (and EWTN) will be covering the last moments of Benedict XVI’s pontificate and will film his flight to Castel Gandolfo from a second helicopter. On arrival, at about 5:30pm (11:30am EST), the Pope will deliver a short address to the many pilgrims expected.

At 8pm (2pm EST), the large gates of the Apostolic Palace at Castel Gandolfo will close, and the Swiss Guards will depart, symbolically indicating that the pontificate of Benedict XVI has ended.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.