The meeting of Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI makes me both happy and sad. I like seeing the two of them together as it is rather cool, yet there is also the bittersweet melancholy over seeing our emeritus pope.
I felt like a bit of a voyeur watching the two men knelt down in prayer. It was oddly disconcerting and to my mind almost an intrusion into a private moment. Or maybe I just expected that this event would be totally private without the intrusion of cameras. Yet the papacy has a very public aspect and I should have expected this. Maybe for me it is just disconcerting to watch two men quietly in prayer. In a world where we jam our senses every waking moment, their simplicity in the quietness of prayer can seem at odds. What I really should be disconcerted at is all the noise and all the efforts to have to narrate what has its own natural narrative. Our culture really needs to see people in prayer as an example.
“No, we are brothers,” Francis told Benedict, according to the Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi. He said Francis wanted to pray together with Benedict, so the two used a different kneeler in the pews and prayed side-by-side.
Francis also brought a gift to Benedict, an icon of the Madonna, and told him that it’s known as the “Madonna of Humility.”
“I thought of you,” Francis told Benedict. “You gave us so many signs of humility and gentleness in your pontificate.” Benedict replied: “Grazie, grazie.”
Benedict wore the simple white cassock of the papacy, with a quilted white jacket over it to guard against the chill, but minus the sash and cape worn by Francis. Walking with a cane, he looked frail compared to the robust 76-year-old Argentine.
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 Vatican made clear they probably wouldn’t see anything.
The Vatican downplayed the remarkable reunion in keeping with Benedict’s desire to remain “hidden from the world” and not interfere with his successor’s papacy. There was no live coverage by Vatican television, and only a short video and still photos were released after the fact.
The Vatican spokesman said the two spoke privately for 40-45 minutes, followed by lunch with the two papal secretaries, but no details were released.
Many have tried to portray stark contrasts between these two men as if Pope Francis is the first humble Pope. I have really appreciated Pope Francis’ connection with his predecessor from the first moments of his papacy he has referred to him and this goes deeper than just passing references. Recently he made references to the term “dictatorship of relativism.” Yes there are certainly contrasts between these two men as there are contrasts in all of us. God did not use cookie cutters to stamp out our personalities. The great saints were not indistinguishable copies of each other. There is not one master way to live out a humility nourished by love of God and neighbor. Although certainly Pope Francis’ early papacy has been rather striking in the way he lives out his humility.
Thankfully our hearts are not a zero-sum game where love for one person must replace the love of another. I can love Blessed John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis and learn and relearn both the same thing from all men and differences in emphasis from them individually. Thank you Jesus!