, CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy, Mar 23 – Pope Francis flew in to a papal residence near Rome on Saturday for a meeting with “pope emeritus” Benedict XVI – an unprecedented encounter in the history of the Catholic Church.
Both men were in the white vestments reserved for popes as Benedict has been allowed to continue wearing his papal robes even after his resignation and is still addressed as “Your Holiness”.
Francis took a helicopter to the lakeside Castel Gandolfo summer residence where Benedict has been living since stepping down last month.
Benedict came to greet him and Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi pointed out that in the car Francis sat on the right – “the classic place for the pope” – while Benedict sat on the left.
In the palace chapel, Lombardi said Benedict had offered Francis the place reserved for popes but that the pontiff had turned it down saying “We are brothers.” They ended up kneeling side by side.
The talks round off a historic few weeks at the Vatican after Benedict became the first pope to resign in over 700 years and only the second to do so by choice in 2,000 years of Church history.
The last pope to resign – Celestine V in 1294 – was locked up and perhaps killed off by his successor Boniface VIII. There is no record of the two ever meeting post-resignation.
Cardinals in a conclave last week elected Francis – Latin America’s first pontiff and the first non-European pontiff in nearly 1,300 years.
The Vatican said Benedict followed television news coverage of Francis’s election from Castel Gandolfo.
Saturday’s talks were private and very little is likely to emerge about their content – with any number of urgent issues for a troubled Roman Catholic Church possibly on the agenda.
The two leaders of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics are both preoccupied with issues ranging from rising secularism in Western countries to the reform of Vatican bureaucracy to the ongoing scandal over the sexual abuse of children by clerics.
The two men – Francis is 76 and Benedict is 85 – have very different styles but important core similarities on matters of doctrine and ways forward for the Church after Benedict’s often difficult eight-year pontificate.
Francis has paid homage to Benedict and has called him twice since becoming pope.
Analysts say Francis will rely heavily on the theological legacy of the former pope.
Benedict, just before his momentous resignation, also pledged allegiance to whomever his successor might be.
He has said he will live “hidden from the world” as a “simple pilgrim” on life’s last journey and is expected next month to move back and live in a former nunnery on Vatican grounds in a life of prayer and academic research.
But the Vatican has said he could also provide “spiritual guidance” to his successor when they live a stone’s throw from each other – an unprecedented and delicate situation for the Church.
Benedict is living temporarily in Castel Gandolfo with his secretary Georg Gaenswein – who confusingly is also the head of his successor’s papal household – and with the four housekeepers who looked after him when he was still pope.
Francis, formerly Jorge Bergoglio, has known Benedict for a long time.
At the 2005 conclave, Bergoglio was the “runner-up” to Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI, and represented a more socially progressive current among the cardinals. But reports at the time indicated that he pulled out of the race.
While Ratzinger was reserved in public, Bergoglio is more spontaneous and people-friendly and has shunned some of the trappings of papal office.
Ratzinger was more a follower of tradition and never liked innovation.
But the two are very alike on doctrine and several of Francis’s remarks in the first days of his papacy have been borrowed from his predecessor.
Both are opposed to gay marriage, abortion and euthanasia – in line with the rest of the Catholic leadership.
“This papacy will be rooted in Benedict’s teachings,” Samuel Gregg from the US-based Acton Institute religious think tank said earlier.
“For the past 25 years, he has been the main intellectual force in the Church,” he said.
Francis’s popularity is being seen with bitterness in some quarters in the Vatican, where the memory of Benedict still shines strongly, unlike the many ordinary Catholics who have said they prefer the new pope’s more direct style.
Postcards have gone on sale around the Vatican in recent days showing a smiling Francis next to a picture of the ever-popular John Paul II – with no depiction of the pope in between, Benedict.