For a pope who vowed to remain “hidden from the world” after his resignation became official almost exactly one year ago, on Feb. 28, 2013, Benedict XVI certainly has been in the spotlight a fair bit lately.
It almost seems as if the former pontiff is trying to express, both visually and verbally, that he has no intention of becoming the chaplain of conservative backlash against his successor, Pope Francis.
Recent days have brought four noteworthy public expressions of Benedict’s support for the new regime.
First, his closest aide and confidante, German Archbishop Georg Gänswein, gave an interview to the Reuters news agency on Feb. 9 in which he insisted there’s “a good feeling” between Francis and Benedict, and that the two men see one another often.
Second, Benedict XVI made a surprise appearance at a Feb. 22 consistory ceremony in which Francis elevated 19 new cardinals into the church’s most exclusive club, sitting in the front row and beaming during the event.
When Francis made his way over to wrap Benedict in a hug, the pope emeritus removed his white zucchetto, a skullcap that’s one of the symbols of the papal office — a small gesture that told insiders he was acknowledging Francis as the new boss.
Third, Benedict responded in writing to questions by veteran Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli concerning speculation that he’d been pressured to step down and therefore his resignation was invalid under church law. Following that reasoning to its logical conclusion, it would suggest that Francis isn’t really the pope.
Benedict dismissed the hypothesis as “simply absurd.”
“I took this step in full awareness of its gravity and novelty but with profound serenity of spirit,” Benedict wrote in comments published Feb. 26. “Loving the church also means having the courage to make difficult, painful choices, always keeping the good of the church in mind and not ourselves.”
Fourth, Gänswein, who still acts as Benedict’s private secretary and who lives with the former pope in a monastery on Vatican grounds, gave another interview to the Washington Post in which he said the two pontiffs didn’t know one another well at the beginning but are becoming steadily closer.
“Benedict is well aware of the fame of his successor, but he’s not jealous because he sees that celebrity as helping the faithful,” Gänswein said.
To some extent, the timing of these gestures and statements from the former pope, and from those closest to him, may be accidental.
The consistory ceremony presided over by Pope Francis just happened to be scheduled for last week, and the one-year anniversary of Benedict’s resignation naturally elicits media interest in how he’s doing and what his attitude may be to the strong popularity enjoyed by his successor.
On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine there isn’t some connection between the former pope’s willingness to step back into the public eye, and the tendency in some traditionalist circles towards nostalgia for Benedict as an expression of misgivings with Francis.
Conservative Italian writer Roberto de Mattei, for example, authored a Feb. 12 piece asserting that developments since the election of Francis amount to “a road that leads to schism and heresy.” (For his trouble, de Mattei was fired the next day by the Italian Catholic network Radio Maria.) A popular American traditionalist pundit, John Vennari, opined on Feb. 13 that Francis is a “theological train wreck” and said he’d never let such a man teach religion to his children. Around the same time, writer Antonio Socci floated the idea that if Benedict had his arm twisted to quit over the 2012 Vatican leaks affair, then it wasn’t a free act under church law and might not count.
At one level, it’s easy to shrug off such dissenting notes. When asked Feb. 26 if he ever had any doubt as to whether Benedict’s resignation was valid, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster in the U.K. told the Globe: “No … I think we can move on.”
On the other hand, Benedict apparently takes it seriously enough to not want his silence to be construed as consent.
The former pope pledged “unconditional obedience” to his successor in his final remarks to cardinals a year ago. For most of the past year, he’s honored that pledge by staying out of sight. Lately it seems he’s found another way to do it, injecting himself back into view just long enough to lend his blessing.
Most observers expect Benedict now to return to the shadows. It’s likely that his next public appearance won’t be until an April 27 ceremony when Francis will declare two former popes, John XXIII and John Paul II, as saints. The event is expected to draw millions of faithful, perhaps rivaling the 2005 funeral Mass of John Paul II as the largest public gathering in the Eternal City.