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  • John Thavis

A historic meeting as Francis visits Benedict

For the Vatican, today brought another “first” – two popes, one retired and one in office, met, had lunch and presumably talked about the various challenges facing the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis and ex-Pope Benedict made sure they met in private, respecting Benedict’s wish that he retire to a “hidden” life that would in no way interfere with his successor.

But in the eyes of the faithful, those concerns were not so important.

“I came here to see the popes, naturally,” one Italian woman told Italian television as she waited in front of the papal villa at Castel Gandolfo, hoping the two would make a joint appearance at the window.

“The popes” is something the Vatican does not talk about, because of course there is only one pope, Pope Francis. But Francis seemed to have no hesitation in seeking out his predecessor – to thank him, to share some impressions of his first 10 days in office and, perhaps, to ask advice.

I think one reason Pope Francis made the trip to Castel Gandolfo, where Benedict is temporarily residing, is that since his resignation Feb. 28 the former pope has appeared almost as an exile. He was probably the only ecclesiastical figure in the Rome region who did not attend Pope Francis’ inaugural Mass last weekend, for example; instead, he had to watch it on TV.

This is Benedict’s intention, and there are valid arguments for a retired pope keeping out of sight and out of mind. An ex-pope who travels the world, gives interviews and pronounces on Vatican affairs could create confusion for Catholics.

But if Benedict were simply to keep a low profile, writing and speaking with his usual discretion but without trying to make himself “invisible,” it might actually help demystify the figure of a retired pope and make the whole idea more normal.

The small crowd outside the papal villa, situated in the Alban Hills 17 miles from Rome, cheered as Pope Francis’ helicopter flew over and touched down behind the walls of the compound. From time to time they chanted the Italian names of the two popes: “Francesco” and “Benedetto.”

What they couldn’t see was later described in detail by the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, and shown in some video footage released by the Vatican Television Center.

Benedict, walking very slowly with a cane, embraced Francis warmly as the new pope strode from the helicopter. Both were dressed in white, but Benedict wore a simple cassock while Francis also wore the sash and shoulder-length cape that are part of a pontiff’s specific garb.

The two got into an official limousine, Francis seated on the right – the pope’s traditional seat – and Benedict on the left.

Inside the villa, they went immediately to the chapel to pray. Benedict deferred to Francis, asking him to take the place of honor on the front kneeler, but Francis replied, “No we are brothers,” and insisted that Benedict kneel next to him.

Watching these images in the Vatican press office, I heard more than one person say quietly of Benedict: “He looks older.” And it was true. In just four weeks, the pope emeritus appeared to have grown more frail.

The two then went inside the library for private talks that lasted 45 minutes. Francis brought Benedict a symbolic gift, an icon of Mary known as the “Madonna of Humility,” and he told the ex-pope: “Allow me to say – I thought of you, and your pontificate.” They clasped each other’s hands.

They were joined for lunch by two papal secretaries, before Pope Francis headed back to the Vatican. A spokesman said that, true to Benedict’s intentions, the two would not come to the balcony of the villa to greet the crowd.

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