By Laura Smith-Spark, CNN
(CNN) — When night falls Thursday over Vatican City, there will be no pope in residence.
After nearly eight tumultuous years at the head of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, Benedict XVI has made the almost unprecedented decision to stand down.
That resignation, which takes effect at 8 p.m. local time (2 p.m. ET), opens up the prospect of unforeseen opportunities and challenges for the Roman Catholic Church.
As Benedict closes the door behind him, many are wondering whether a new pontiff will choose to lead the church in a different direction — and can lift it out of the mire of scandal that has bogged down this pope’s time in office.
Even as Benedict’s final week began, Vatican officials were trying to swat down unsavory claims by Italian publications of an episode involving gay priests, male prostitutes and blackmail. Then the news broke that Benedict had moved up the resignation of a Scottish archbishop linked over the weekend by a British newspaper to inappropriate relationships with priests.
Last year, leaks of secret documents from the pope’s private apartment — which revealed claims of corruption within the Vatican — prompted a high-profile trial of his butler and a behind-doors investigation by three cardinals. Their report, its contents known so far only to Benedict, will be handed to his successor to deal with, the Vatican said.
At the same time, the church faces continued anger about what many see as its failure to deal with child sex abuse by priests.
So, when Benedict announced on February 11 that he would step down, becoming the first living pope to resign in 598 years, there was inevitable speculation that his move was in some way linked to the brewing scandals.
The danger for the Vatican is that the furor risks overshadowing what others see as Benedict’s real legacy to the church: his teaching and writings, including three papal encyclicals.
Proof of the Vatican’s irritation came with a stinging statement Saturday complaining of “unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories,” even suggesting the media is trying to influence the election of the next pope.
The constant buffeting by scandal will doubtless also have taken a toll on an 85-year-old man whose interests lie in scholarly study and prayer rather than damage control.
Benedict suggested as much at his final general audience Wednesday, when in front of cheering crowds in St. Peter’s Square he spoke of steering the church through sometimes choppy waters.
There had been “many days of sunshine,” he said, but also “times when the water was rough … and the Lord seemed to sleep.”
Putting scandal aside, the pope’s last day in office has been carefully mapped out by Vatican aides who’ve had to make up the rules over the past two weeks.
In contrast to the public focus of his final general audience and meetings with foreign dignitaries Wednesday, Benedict spent Thursday in a quiet, more intimate manner.
He met in the morning with the cardinals who’ve made their way to Rome to take part in the election of a new pontiff. Benedict told the cardinals it was a”joy to walk with you” during his eight years as pope.
During the meeting, Benedict pledged his “unconditional obedience” to the next pope.
“I will continue to serve you in prayer, in particular in the coming days” as the cardinals work to select a new pontiff, he said.
The cardinals gave Benedict a standing ovation, and then one by one each met the pope to say a final few words.
Later, senior Vatican officials and a detachment of the Swiss Guards, who by tradition protect the pope, will gather to bid him farewell as his helicopter takes off from Vatican City bound for the summer papal residence, Castel Gandolfo.
Once at Castel Gandolfo, where he will spend the next few weeks before moving to a small monastery within the Vatican grounds, Benedict will make one last public appearance on the balcony.
Having greeted those gathered below, he will step back inside and begin his life of seclusion.
At 8 p.m., the Swiss Guards will ceremonially leave the residence’s gate — and the process of transition to a new pope will begin.
The Vatican has said it wants to have the next pontiff in place in time for the week of services leading up to Easter Sunday on March 31.
In his final public address in St. Peter’s Square, the pope called for a renewal of faith, and for the prayers of Catholics around the world both for him and his successor.
His departure leaves the church facing many questions, not least who will take the reins.
But Benedict suggested that its future, “at a time when many speak of its decline,” lies in seeing it as a community of many people united in a love of Christ, rather than as an organization.
In what may be the last word on his @Pontifex Twitter account, the pope said Wednesday: “If only everyone could experience the joy of being Christian, being loved by God who gave his Son for us!”