Pope Francis kneels in prayer with predecessor Benedict

Historic meeting in papal summer residence as a reigning pontiff and ex-pope face each other for first time in 600 years


It was an historic, keenly anticipated moment, the day when two popes, both dressed in almost identical white, met to talk, to pray and then to eat together.

In an unprecedented encounter, at least during the last 600 years, newly elected Pope Francis met with his predecessor, Roman Pontiff Emeritus, Benedict XVI this morning when he flew out from the Vatican to the papal summer residence in Castelgandolfo.

Even though the Vatican had warned that this would be an exclusively private visit, Vatican TV subsequently released a short film clip of the encounter between the two men. In the TV images, the two Popes are seen to greet one another warmly as Francis steps out of the helicopter in Castelgandolfo.

Benedict greeted Francis warmly, embracing his guest in the style of a well-mannered host, with neither of them apparently paying any attention to the fact that it is now Francis and not Benedict who is the real number one resident in the papal summer residence.

Before they sat down for a 45 minute long meeting, the two men prayed together kneeling side by side at the same prayer rail in the papal chapel.

Even here, there was a curious little moment when Benedict appeared reluctant to kneel alongside the new pope, urging Francis to pray on his own. Francis, however, caught Benedict’s hand and insisted that the two should pray side by side.

Given the unpredictable, spontaneous style adopted by Francis since his election as pope last week, many had hoped that he might again break with protocol and salute the faithful from the balcony of the Apostolic Palace in Castelgandolfo after the meeting.

In the end, however, Papa Francesco did not break with protocol this time. Rather he came, he saw and he then headed home, without stopping either to salute the faithful or to make any comment on his historic visit to Benedict.

Even if the Vatican gave no indication of just what issues were discussed by Francis and Benedict this morning, it is not hard to imagine that they exchanged thoughts on the most urgent and controversial issues currently facing the Catholic Church.

Issues such as the persecution of Christians in parts of Africa and the Middle East, the clerical sex abuse phenomenon, falling vocations in the West and the governance of the Holy See in the wake of the Vatileaks enquiry are likely to have loomed large this morning.

From the moment of his election last week, Francis has manifested a particular regard and attention for his predecessor, telephoning him twice and calling on the faithful to pray for him.

To some extent, this concern for Benedict is an obvious attempt to quash any speculation that Francis might in any way feel uncomfortable or undermined by the presence of his predecessor living within the Vatican walls.

Although 86-year-old Benedict is currently living in the papal summer residence, his presence there is temporary since he will shortly be moving into a convent within the walls of the Vatican where he is expected to live out the rest of his days.

Pope Francis (76) is currently living in temporary accommodation at the Domus Santa Marta in the Vatican whilst renovation work is carried out on the papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace. Italian media reports claim that Francis has requested the apartment be rendered less imposing and institutional.

When he visited it last week, he reportedly exclaimed: “But 300 people could live here…”

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