VATICAN CITY– Pope Francis and his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, met at Castel Gandolfo, their first since the latter stepped down from the papacy on February 28 because of old age.
The new pope, who was installed on March 19, flew by helicopter to Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence where Benedict has been staying while his retirement home in the Vatican, Mater Ecclesiae, is being refurbished.
They would have lunch and meet until the afternoon, according to the Vatican press office.
It was the two men’s first meeting since Benedict bade goodbye to the College of Cardinals on Feb. 28. Earlier, on Feb. 11, Benedict made the shocking announcement that he was resigning the papacy at the end of the month because he didn’t have any more the physical and mental strength to continue in the office.
The historic meeting of the two has been highly anticipated since no situation has obtained in recent history of two popes co-existing, although one bears only the title and not the authority.
The last pope to resign was Celestine IX in 1294, a monk who had been pulled out of his hermitage in the Apennines to become pope by cardinals who felt he was the right man for the job. He resigned five months later, giving way to Boniface VIII, who had him imprisoned, fearful that people loyal to the former pope would provoke a schism.
Like Celestine, Benedict said he was retiring to a life of prayer and contemplation.
Irish theologian Fr. Paul O’Callaghan of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome rejected observations that there are now two popes. “When Pope Benedict renounced the papacy, it was as if he had died,” he said.
In his last speech as pontiff the day he ended his papacy, Benedict told the cardinals, including then Buenos Aires Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, that the Church was “a living reality” that continues to operate through history.
Apparently Benedict was saying that the Church would continue even without him as pope. “Through the Church, the Mystery of the Incarnation lives on forever,” he said. “Christ continues to walk through the epochs and in all places.”
Since then, the two men have kept in contact by phone, first, on March 13, when Bergoglio, having been elected by the papal conclave and having chosen the name Francis as his papal name, called up the former pope; and most recently, last March 19, when the new pope was installed during the Solemnity, or feast, of Saint Joseph, and he called up again to greet Benedict, whose Christian name is Joseph Ratzinger, the namesake of the saint.
During the second call, according to the Vatican press office, Pope Francis “again… declared his, and the Church’s, gratitude for the pope emeritus’ service.” Benedict in turn reportedly assured “his successor of his continued closeness in prayer.”
The two seem to have taken pains to show continuity in the Petrine ministry.
In his first address to the diplomatic corps last Friday, Pope Francis made mention of Benedict in explaining that while he might have taken the name of St. Francis, who was known for his embrace of poverty and simplicity, in order to make clear the Church’s unity with poor people, there’s also the problem of spiritual poverty.
Francis made clear that spiritual poverty had something to do with the moral bankruptcy and relativism of rich nations.
“But there is another form of poverty”, said the new pope. “It is the spiritual poverty of our time, which afflicts the so-called richer countries seriously. It is what my much-loved predecessor, Benedict XVI, called the ‘tyranny of relativism’, which makes everyone his own criterion and endangers the coexistence of peoples.”
Benedict left behind unfinished business, such as the rehabilitation of the schismatic Society of St. Pius X, the traditionalist movement founded by the late Swiss Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre that disagreed with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and which broke from Rome in the late 1980’s.
It had been anticipated before he stepped down that Benedict would restore relations with the schismatic church, but he eventually left it to the next pope to decide the matter.
Meanwhile, it was announced that Pope Francis will break tradition and hold the traditional Maundy Thursday afternoon service, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, not at the Basilica of St. John Lateran, where it is usually held, but the Casal del Marmo jail for minors on the outskirts of Rome.
During the service, the Vatican press office said, the pope will wash and kiss the feet of 12 people to commemorate the Jesus’ washing of the feet of his apostles with whom he shared supper on the night before he died.
The Vatican press office said that as Archbishop Bergoglio, the pope visited the Casal del Marmo in 2007 to celebrate Mass in the Chapel of the Merciful Father.