Popes break bread in 'moment of great communion'

Pope emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis join in prayer on Saturday, March 23, in Castel Gandolfo, home of the papal retreat to which Benedict retired.
Pope emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis join in prayer on Saturday, March 23, in Castel Gandolfo, home of the papal retreat to which Benedict retired.
Photo by AFP | Getty Images
| Saturday, March 23, 2013, 6:15 p.m.

CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy — For the first time in six centuries, a meeting between two popes became reality on Saturday, and Vatican protocol was again turned upside down with a reigning pope telling a retired one, “We are brothers.”

Pope Francis flew by helicopter from the Vatican to this hilltown south of Rome to have lunch with his predecessor, Benedict XVI, an historic and potentially problematic melding of the papacies.

In a season of extraordinary moments, starting with Benedict's resignation and climaxing with the election of the first New World pope, the encounter provided perhaps the most enduring images of this papal transition as popes present and past embraced, prayed and broke bread together.

“It was a moment of great communion in the church,” said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.

Benedict, 85, has been living at the papal retreat in Castel Gandolfo since he stepped down Feb. 28. From the moment he was elected, Francis, 76, made clear he would visit him, refusing in a way to let Benedict remain “hidden from the world” as the former pope had intended.

Benedict greeted Francis on the helipad of the Castel Gandolfo gardens as soon as the papal helicopter landed. They embraced and clasped hands. And in a series of gestures that followed, Benedict made clear that he considers Francis to be pope while Francis made clear he considers his predecessor to be very much a revered brother and equal.

When they entered the chapel inside the palazzo to pray, Benedict tried to direct Francis to the papal kneeler in the front, but Francis refused.

Taking Benedict's hands, Francis said, “No, we are brothers,” Lombardi said. The two used a longer kneeler in the pews and prayed side-by-side, the kneeler meant for the pontiff left vacant.

It was a gesture that, 10 days into Francis' papacy, is becoming routine ­­— a shunning of the trappings of the papacy in favor of a collegial and simple style that harks back to his Jesuit roots and ministry in the slums of Buenos Aires.

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 crowd soon dissipated after Francis' helicopter left 2.5 hours later, without either pope coming to the balcony as many had hoped.

The Vatican downplayed the remarkable reunion in keeping with Benedict's desire to stay out of the spotlight so as not to 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 meeting. No details of the pair's private talks or lunch were released.

All of which led to enormous speculation about what these two men in white might have said to one another. That the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was second only to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the 2005 conclave that elected Ratzinger pope — considered then to be the “anti-Ratzinger” candidate — only added to the popular imagination about what two men with such radically different styles, backgrounds and priorities might have chatted about over lunch.

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