VATICAN CITY -- Pope Benedict XVI promised his "unconditional reverence and obedience" to his successor in his final words to cardinals Thursday, a poignant and powerful farewell delivered hours before he becomes the first pope in 600 years to resign.
In an unexpected speech inside the Vatican's frescoed Clementine Hall, the pontiff appeared to be trying to defuse concerns about possible conflicts arising from the peculiar situation of having both a reigning pope and a retired one.
He also gave a final set of instructions to the "princes" of the church who will elect his successor, urging them to be united as they huddle to choose the 266th leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
"May the College of Cardinals work like an orchestra, where diversity - an expression of the universal church - always works toward a higher and harmonious agreement," he said.
It was seen as a clear reference to the deep internal divisions that have come to the fore in recent months following the leaks of sensitive Vatican documents that exposed power struggles and allegations of corruption inside the Vatican.
The moment was as unique as Benedict's decision to quit, with the 85-year-old pope, wearing his crimson velvet cape and using a cane, bidding farewell to his closest advisers and the cardinals themselves bowing to kiss his fisherman's ring for the last time.
Some seemed to choke up at that moment, but the scene seemed otherwise almost normal, with cardinals chatting on the sidelines waiting their turn to say goodbye.
Benedict said he would pray for the cardinals in coming days as they discuss the issues facing the church, the qualities needed in a new pope and prepare to enter into the secret conclave to elect him.
"Among you is also the future pope, whom I today promise my unconditional reverence and obedience," Benedict said in his final audience.