For a man surrounded by so many thousands of well-wishers in St Peter's Square, Pope Benedict looked small and very lonely in the shade of a utilitarian metal canopy on the steps before the vast Baroque facade. The morning sun caught the lower part of his white cassock as mothers with little children waved flags.
"The Pope is not the only steersman in the barque of Peter," he said. But the very setting suggested that he was the unmistakable captain. Bang in the centre of that stone outdoor theatre he sat, a few paces from the prelates who flanked him.
Benedict had read his obituaries in the past few days, hurriedly converted into analyses of his papacy. Now he was presiding at his own funeral, or something like it: the last public ceremonial of his papacy. But the atmosphere was more like a royal jubilee. When he paused in speaking, the continuous sound of applause in the column-hugged square was like heavy rain on a roof. No other pope has gone through anything like yesterday's farewell. Celestine V ran away into the hills in 1296; Gregory XII in 1415 left his throne empty for a successor to be elected after his death.
In Britain we are used to monarchy. "The King is dead," says the proclamation. "God save the King." No sooner is one monarch lifeless than the next begins his reign. But between popes there is a sede vacante (Latin: ablative absolute, "the chair being empty"). It has always been connected in thought with the death of a pope.
It is like Gormenghast: everything is laid down in ceremony. The chamberlain calls the dead man by his old Christian name lest he be but sleeping; the Ring of the Fisherman is broken with a hammer; the body is vested, from white zucchetto to red buskins, for the funeral. None of that has happened. Instead, the Emeritus Bishop of Rome, as he becomes today, hands in his ring and changes out of his red shoes. He even keeps a white cassock.
We miss the funeral, though. The Prince of Wales postponed his wedding to be at the last one, for Pope John Paul II in 2005. Funerals bring people together. The President of Iran was there, and the President of Israel; Robert Mugabe and George Bush. During the prayers and silences they were not obliged to talk.
Yesterday was not for the princes of this world but for the people. Rome was certainly turned upside down, but on the other side of the Tiber from the Vatican, delivery vans unloaded hams and politicians tried to stitch up deals as if nothing had happened. The thousands in St Peter's Square were from the world not the city, from Bavaria and Congo, France and America.
Those who had applied and queued for a ticket sat corralled on old plastic stacking-chairs bleached by the elements. From the roof of St Peter's the rows could be counted: 64 rows of 80, and the same on the other side of the central obelisk, then another block, then another. From a distance, the skullcaps of a knot of cardinals looked like fuchsias.
The people spilt out of the Vatican state, with concentrations like iron filings round screens in the Via della Conciliazione that runs towards the kaolin-grey Tiber. The silence that fell during readings from Scripture was like walking from a noisy pub into an empty street.
In the long wait of the chill morning the crowd had welcomed the sun that warmed their backs (the front of St Peter's, anomalously, being to the east). Not many of those there were fully familiar with Cardinal Keith O'Brien, whose resignation for once justifies the epithet "shock". It really does matter, though. "Sad" was how many I asked said it made them. In the Anglican Centre in Rome, where prayers were said for Pope Benedict at Tuesday Eucharist, the sermon was on hypocrisy, with particular reference to church leaders.
But I think we should not underestimate the hard-bitten ability of Catholics to distinguish between the holiness of the Church and the sinfulness of its members. Jesus Christ, they were taught from childhood, is the head of the Church, not the Pope. There may be crises in the Church, but the Church is not in crisis. It is growing.
This present Pope clearly feels the weight of the sexual abuse scandals. It has not proved so easy to "clean things up". He found it dispiriting to try to marshal the officials of the curia. And now he can do no more.
We had only just begun to know him, though his reign was not abnormally short. It lasted 174 days more than that of Benedict XV, who died in 1922 exhausted by his fruitless efforts to bring peace to Europe. But Britain only came to see Benedict XVI in the round when he visited us in 2010. It was then that we saw he was no attack-dog, as we had been invited to believe during the years since 1981, when he was put in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Even physically he resembled a lemur more than a bloodthirsty mastiff.
The turning point in the visit came at his address in Westminster Hall, where statesmen and politicians applauded his proposition that Christianity had its place in the public forum. He said more by his action in coming to Britain - having had two strokes, and, as we now know, a pacemaker fitted - to a muddy field in the rain near Birmingham to declare Blessed the English theologian he had admired since seminary days, John Henry Newman. Newman's motto Cor ad Cor Loquitor, "Heart speaks to heart", decorated the banners that day. Pope Benedict was not just a dry academic; he had a heart, too.
By the end of the tour, David Cameron was only too happy to appear for a farewell speech at the airport, heartily agreeing about "working for the common good". It was a feelgood moment, like the end of the Olympic Games. Never again would we in Britain undervalue our Christian heritage. But memories fade. And in any case some political activists don't care twopence for the common good.
So, what has the Pope left us, as he says goodbye? No perspective is yet available. There are his books on Jesus, examples of the way he thinks the Bible should be read, consciously using faith as an instrument of interpretation. Oddly enough, though, those books were written in a private capacity as Joseph Ratzinger.
As Joseph Ratzinger, he attended the Vatican Council 50 years ago. No one has had the last word on what that council means. Under Benedict, there has been an ideal of reverence in worship, with more sacralised language, more use of Latin. But just as there is no job description for a pope, there is no yardstick for judging his legacy.
In his sermon at the Mass at the opening of the conclave in 2005 at which he was elected, Cardinal Ratzinger touched an elegiac note. "Buildings do not last, or books. After a certain time, more or less long, all this disappears." So what abides? "Love, knowledge; the gesture capable of touching the heart; the word that opens the soul to the joy of the Lord."
Pope Benedict valued the symbolism of material things. The woollen stole or pallium that he wore on solemn occasions represented, he explained on the day of his inauguration, the sheep rescued from the desert by the Good Shepherd. The desert was outside, and within too, in "the emptiness of souls no longer aware of their dignity or the goal of human life".
At yesterday's farewell in St Peter's Square young helpers wore tabards marked Anno Fidei 2013, the Year of Faith that Pope Benedict had declared. Now we see something of what that means for him. Like Abraham, an archetype of faith, "he went out, not knowing whither he went" as the Epistle to the Hebrew says. He is leaving his lodgings for another temporary abode, where perhaps he will play Bach and Mozart on the piano and enjoy the company of cats.
Tonight at the stroke of seven GMT there will be no pope, and the chair of Peter will be empty. Sede vacante.