CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy – The two men in white embraced and showed one another the deference owed a pope in ways that surely turned Vatican protocol upside down: A reigning pope telling a retired one, We are brothers, and insisting that they pray side-by-side during a date to discuss the future of the Catholic Church.
Pope Francis traveled Saturday from the Vatican to this hill town south of Rome to have lunch with his predecessor, Benedict XVI, a historic and potentially problematic melding of the papacies that has never before confronted the church.
In a season of extraordinary moments, starting with Benedict’s resignation and climaxing with the election of the first Latin American pope, Saturday’s encounter provided perhaps the most enduring images of this papal transition as popes present and past embraced, prayed and broke bread together.
It was a moment of great communion in the church, said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi. The spiritual union of these two people is truly a great gift and a promise of serenity for the church.
Benedict, 85, has been living at the papal retreat in Castel Gandolfo since he stepped down Feb. 28 and became the first pope to resign in 600 years. From the moment he was elected, Francis, 76, made clear he would go visit him, refusing in a way to let Benedict remain hidden from the world as he had intended.
Wearing a white quilted jacket over his white cassock to guard against the spring chill, Benedict greeted Francis with an embrace on the helipad of the Castel Gandolfo gardens as soon as the papal helicopter landed. And in a series of gestures that followed, Benedict made clear that he considered Francis to be pope while Francis made clear he considered his predecessor to be very much a revered brother and equal.
Traveling from the helipad to the palazzo, Benedict gave Francis the seat on the right-hand side of the car, the traditional place of the pope, while Benedict sat on the left. When they entered the chapel inside the palazzo to pray, Benedict tried to direct Francis to the papal kneeler in the front, but Francis refused.
Taking Benedict’s hands and drawing him near, Francis said, No, we are brothers, Lombardi said. The two used a longer kneeler in the pews and prayed side-by-side, the papal kneeler facing the altar left vacant.
It was a gesture that, 10 days into Francis’ papacy, is becoming routine: a shunning of the trappings of the papacy in favor of a collegial and simple style that harks back to his Jesuit roots and ministry in the slums of Buenos Aires.
Francis also brought a gift for Benedict, an icon of the Madonna.
They told me it’s the Madonna of Humility, Francis told Benedict. Let me say one thing: When they told me that, I immediately thought of you, at the many marvelous examples of humility and gentleness that you gave us during your pontificate.
Benedict replied: Grazie, grazie.
Outside the villa, the main piazza of Castel Gandolfo was packed with well-wishers bearing photos of both popes and chanting Francesco! Francesco! But the crowd soon dissipated after Francis’ helicopter left two hours later, without either pope coming to the balcony as many had hoped.
The Vatican downplayed the remarkable reunion in keeping with Benedict’s desire to stay out of the spotlight so as not to interfere with his successor’s papacy. No details of the pair’s private talks were released.