Pope Francis was greeted by his predecessor Benedict XVI, whose historic resignation made possible the first meeting of its kind in almost 600 years, on the heliport of the pontiff’s summer residence.
Francis flew by helicopter just after noon Rome time to Castel Gandolfo, south of the capital, before riding by car together with Benedict XVI, now known as Pope Emeritus, through the villa’s grounds to the hilltop palazzo.
Inside, they prayed in the chapel, with Francis declining Benedict’s suggestion the new pope kneel alone at the prayer stand of honor and insisting they stay together, according to a Vatican statement.
“We are brothers,” Francis said, according to the statement. Video released by the Vatican showed Francis pulling Benedict by the arm to kneel together. They then met privately in the library before lunch, the Vatican said.
Benedict’s surprise resignation for health reasons fueled speculation he lacked the strength to confront intrigue and infighting among the Vatican bureaucracy that was exposed in documents leaked to the press last year. The election of an Argentine with few ties to Curia, as the Vatican insiders are known, has increased the chance of a shakeup in the day-to-day management of the church.
Francis has praised Benedict for his courageous decision to resign rather than continue to lead the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics as his strength and health declined.
“I think with great affection and deep gratitude of my venerable predecessor, Benedict XVI, who during these years of his pontificate has enriched and strengthened the church with his teaching, his goodness, his guidance, his faith, his humility and his gentleness, which will remain a spiritual heritage for all,” he said at a March 16 meeting of Cardinals.
The two last spoke on March 19, the day of Francis’s inauguration on St. Joseph’s Day, when the new pope called Benedict, formerly Joseph Ratzinger, to wish him well on his saint’s day.
Benedict’s Feb. 11 announcement that he planned to resign stunned the world as virtually all popes have served until their death. Gregory XII was the last pope to quit in 1415, to resolve a dispute over who should lead the Catholic Church. His resignation led to the end of the Western Schism, which arose after two popes were elected in 1378, with one sitting in Avignon, France, and the other in Rome.
After today’s lunch, Francis made the 20-minute return flight back to the Vatican, where he is living in temporary quarters in the hotel where cardinals stayed during the conclave that elected him March 13.