What next for Pope Benedict XVI after his abdication?

While a church conclave will chose his successor next month, thoughts have now turned to what Joseph Ratzinger will do after his retirement

The thousands who gathered in St Peter's Square for Pope Benedict's final general audience will all have been aware that he will be the first pontiff to abdicate in almost 600 years.

The Pope, 85, retired today, after admitting he faced 'choppy waters' during his eight years as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

While a church conclave will chose his successor in a process which begins on March 24, thoughts have now turned to what Joseph Ratzinger will do after his retirement.

In the immediate aftermath of his resignation, he will spend his last few hours in the Vatican thanking the loyal cardinals who have been at his side for eight years.

'His Holiness', as he will continue to be known after his abdication, is expected to return by helicopter to Castel Gandolfo, an area around 15 miles south-east of Rome where Benedict XVI has a summer residence.

After giving a final wave from the window of this palatial retreat, the papal throne will officially be vacated and Benedict XVI will take on the new title of 'Pope Emeritus'.

Benedict XVI waves from the Pope-mobile during his final audience in St Peter's Square today (AP/PA)

The title 'Emeritus', is given when someone of status hands over their position, allowing their former rank to be retained.

The Pope will surrender his gold ring of office, and will wear his unmissable white cassock without any trimmings or a cape.

The Swiss Guards, who are symbolically tasked with protecting the Pope, will also leave his side at 8pm on Thursday.

The Pope announced his resignation earlier this month, citing health reasons and his 'advancing age' (AP/PA)

Benedict XVI is said to be a keen writer - he may well use his retirement to concentrate on this and could well turn his hand to the subject of the Holy Trinity, in which he is said to be very interested.

He is more likely to simply concentrate on his health - the very reason he gave for his abdication in the first place.

Benedict XVI said in the final weeks of his papacy that his physical strength had deteriorated in the past few months because of his 'advanced age'.

At 85 years old, he is likely to simply want some recuperation time from the mental and physical challenges of leading more than one billion Catholics worldwide.