x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Two popes' historic luncheon shrouded in secrecy

The lack of information surrounding the meeting has led to enormous speculation about what these two men in white might have to say to one another after making history together.

Pope Francis meets Pope emeritus Benedict XVI in Castel Gandolfo on Saturday. Osservatore Romano / Handout / AP Photo
Pope Francis meets Pope emeritus Benedict XVI in Castel Gandolfo on Saturday. Osservatore Romano / Handout / AP Photo

CASTEL GANDOLFO, ITALY // Pope Francis travelled yesterday 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, Benedict offered Popr 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.

The Vatican spokesman, Rev Federico Lombardi said he understands Benedict offered his pledge of obedience to the new pope, while Pope Francis thanked Benedict for his ministry. He said they both wore white, though Benedict was in a simple cassock without the traditional sash and cape worn by Pope Francis.

Outside, the main piazza of Castel Gandolfo was packed yesterday 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!"

Benedict has been living at the papal summer villa since he resigned 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".

The Vatican is downplaying the luncheon in keeping with 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 lack of information surrounding the meeting has led to enormous speculation about what these two men in white might have to say to one another after making history together: Benedict's resignation paved the way for the first pope from Latin America, the first Jesuit, and the first to call himself Francis after the 13th century friar who devoted himself to the poor, nature and working for peace.

Perhaps over their primo, or pasta course during yesterday's lunch, the two popes might discuss the big issues facing the church: the rise of secularism in the world, the drop in priestly vocations in Europe, the competition that the Catholic Church faces in Latin America and Africa from evangelical Pentecostal movements.

Or maybe during their secondo, or second course of meat or fish, they'll discuss more pressing issues concerning Pope Francis' new job: Benedict left a host of unfinished business on Pope Francis' plate, including the outcome of a top-secret investigation into the leaks of papal documents last year. Pope Francis might want to sound Benedict out on his ideas for management changes in the Holy See administration, a priority given the complete dysfunctional government he has inherited.

Then over coffee, they might discuss the future of Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, Pope Benedict's trusted aide who has had the difficult task of escorting his old pope into retirement and then returning to the Vatican to serve his successor in the initial rites of the office.

Monsignor Gaenswein, who wept as he and Benedict made their goodbyes to staff in the papal apartment on February 28, has appeared visibly upset and withdrawn at times as he has been by Pope Francis' side. The Vatican has said Francis' primary secretary will be Monsignor Alfred Xuereb, who had been the No 2 secretary under Benedict.