Pope Francis has travelled to Castel Gandolfo to have lunch with his predecessor Benedict XVI in an historic and potentially problematic melding of the papacies that has never before confronted the Catholic Church.
The Vatican said the two popes embraced on the helipad. In the chapel where they prayed together, Pope Emeritus Benedict offered Pope Francis the traditional kneeler used by the pope. Pope Francis refused to take it alone, saying “We’re brothers,” and the two prayed together on the same one.
Outside the villa, the main piazza of Castel Gandolfo was packed Saturday with well-wishers hoping to catch a glimpse of history: two popes breaking bread together and presumably discussing the future of the Catholic Church. They chanted “Francesco! Francesco!”
Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said he understands Pope Emeritus Benedict offered his pledge of obedience to the new pope, while Pope Francis thanked Pope Emeritus Benedict for his ministry. He said they both wore white, though Pope Emeritus Benedict was in a simple cassock without the traditional sash and cape worn by Pope Francis.
Pope Emeritus Benedict has been living at the papal summer villa since he resigned on February 28, the first pope to step down in 600 years. He has said he plans to live out his final years in prayer and remain “hidden from the world.”
Pope Emeritus Benedict’s dramatic departure that day flying by helicopter from the helipad in the Vatican gardens with his weeping secretary by his side and circling St. Peter’s Square in a final goodbye is one of the most evocative images of this remarkable papal transition.
The Vatican is downplaying the luncheon in keeping with Pope Emeritus Benedict’s desire to remain in private and not interfere with his successor’s papacy. There was to be no live coverage of the private meeting by Vatican television, only a few still photos from the official Vatican photographer and perhaps a video released after the fact.
The Vatican said Pope Emeritus Benedict was at the helipad in the villa gardens to welcome Pope Francis, and that the two were meeting in Pope Emeritus Benedict’s library and having lunch together. Francis will then return to his makeshift home at the Vatican hotel at an unspecified time later in the day.
The Vatican spokesman promised a general comment about the meeting, but no detailed statement.
All of which has led to enormous speculation about what these two men in white might have to say to one another after making history together — Pope Emeritus Benedict’s resignation paved the way for the first pope from Latin America, the first Jesuit, and the first to call himself Pope Francis after the 13th century friar who devoted himself to the poor, nature and working for peace.