A year ago, we watched a frail and exhausted Pope Benedict climb into a helicopter for a flight across the rooftops of Rome to Castel Gandolfo. When the Swiss guards closed the gates and Pope Benedict waved a “good night” from the balcony, many thought he would not be seen in public again. Some suggested that he was already suffering from a terminal illness.
Shortly thereafter, the new pope paid him a visit, and eventually Benedict returned to his monastic retreat in the Vatican. Later on he was present for the blessing of a new statue of St. Michael the Archangel, wrote a letter to a leading atheist to answer some questions, and–that was it. Then last weekend, just a year after his historic abdication, Pope Benedict was back.
Looking rested and happy, the retired pope attended the consistory that saw the elevation of several new cardinals. The next week saw him writing to the Italian website Vatican Insider stressing that the rumors that he was forced to resign were “simply absurd.” Speculation is rising that his next appearance will be even more public, and that he will join Pope Francis at the ceremony on April 27 to canonize Popes John Paul II and John XXIII.
What is the emerging role of Pope Emeritus Benedict? At last Saturday’s consistory, he looked alert and strong for a man of eighty-six years. Is he really in complete seclusion in the Mater Dei monastery, or has Pope Benedict really returned to the kind of “second fiddle” role he played during the long papacy of John Paul II? During John Paul’s papacy, then-Cardinal Ratzinger remained a quiet but strong supporter of the crowd-pleasing Polish pope. In his role as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger provided the theological precision the papacy needs to define and defend the faith.
While Pope Benedict does not play that role actively, it is very probable that he provides intellectual and spiritual support for Pope Francis. Pope Francis is a Vatican outsider; Pope Benedict knows the Vatican inside and out. Pope Francis is a crowd pleaser; Pope Benedict always seemed shy and self-effacing with the crowds. Pope Francis is ready to make prophetic pronouncements which sometimes seem theologically ambiguous; Pope Benedict is precise and measured in his writings. Benedict could well be bringing balance and stability to his successor’s brilliant papacy without overshadowing or competing with him.
A year ago, when Pope Benedict resigned, I predicted that with a new pope we may find a “dual papacy” emerging in which the Pope would be the global evangelist while the Pope Emeritus would be present as a mentor, guide and rock solid support.
If this is what is emerging, it does not mean that Pope Benedict will play a public role. In a revealing interview with the Washington Post, his secretary Archbishop Georg Gänswein explained that Benedict’s appearance at the consistory was at Pope Francis’ invitation. “Pope Benedict pondered a lot and then accepted,” Gänswein said. “But this does not in any way signify that he is, so to speak, getting back in the game.”
Pope Benedict’s influence is private and personal. While he has no plans for an increasing public role, his friendship with Pope Francis is intimate and regular. Archbishop Gänswein revealed that the two men are becoming friends: “Benedict’s esteem [for Pope Francis] is very high. And it has grown because of the courage of the new Pope, week after week. At the beginning, they did not know each other very well. But then Pope Francis phoned him, wrote him, visited him, phoned him again and invited him [to private meetings], so that their contact became very personal and confidential.”
This fraternal relationship between the two popes is precisely what is needed as the role of the papacy expands. As the papacy of Francis goes global in a way that even John Paul II’s did not, he will be able to rely on the stability and continuity of having Pope Benedict in the background for quiet guidance and experienced advice.
With the two popes, we see the balance and stability of Benedict combined with the prophetic, charismatic quality of Francis. As their two namesake saints balanced the historic gospel message, so the two popes bring both balance and a fiery zeal to the task of the New Evangelization.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker’snew book is The Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty. Visit his blog, listen to his radio show, subscribe to his free newsletter and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.