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Pope Francis meets Pope Benedict in historic visit

The new pontiff met with his predecessor at the papal retreat of Castel Gandolfo, calling the pope emeritus "his brother."

By Nicole Winfield and Paolo SantaluciaThe Associated Press / March 23, 2013

Pope Francis is greeted by his retired predecessor Pope Benedict XVI after arriving at the papal retreat outside Rome.

Osservatore Romano

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Pope Francis traveled Saturday to this hill town south of Rome to have lunch with his "brother" and predecessor Benedict XVI, a historic and potentially problematic melding of the papacies that has never before confronted the Catholic Church.

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The two men dressed in white embraced warmly on the helipad in the gardens of Castel Gandolfo, where Benedict has been living since he retired Feb. 28 and became the first pope to resign in 600 years.

And in a series of gestures that ensued, Benedict made clear that he considered Francis to be pope while Francis made clear he considered his predecessor to be very much a revered brother and equal.

Traveling from the helipad to the palazzo, Francis sat on the right-hand side of the car, the traditional place of the pope, while Benedict sat on the left. When they entered the chapel inside the palazzo to pray, Benedict tried to direct Francis to the papal kneeler at the front of the chapel, but Francis refused.

"No, we are brothers, we pray together," Francis told Benedict, according to the Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi. The two used a different kneeler in the pews and prayed together, side-by-side.

Francis brought a gift to Benedict, an icon of the Madonna, and told him that it's known as the "Madonna of Humility."

"I thought of you," Francis told Benedict. "You gave us so many signs of humility and gentleness in your pontificate." Benedict replied: "Grazie, grazie."

Benedict wore the simple white cassock of the papacy, with a quilted white jacket over it to guard against the chill, but minus the sash and cape worn by Francis. Walking with a cane, he looked frail compared to the robust 76-year-old Argentine.

Outside the villa, the main piazza of Castel Gandolfo was packed with well-wishers bearing photos of both popesand chanting "Francesco! Francesco!" But the Vatican made clear they probably wouldn't see anything.

The Vatican downplayed the remarkable reunion in keeping with Benedict's desire to remain "hidden from the world" and not 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 fact.

The Vatican spokesman said the two spoke privately for 40-45 minutes, followed by lunch with the two papal secretaries, but no details were released.

All of which led to enormous speculation about what these two popes might have said to one another after making history together: Benedict's surprise resignation paved the way for the first pope from Latin America, the first Jesuit, and the first to call himself Francis after the 13th century friar who devoted himself to the poor, nature and working for peace.

That the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was second only to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the 2005 conclave that elected Ratzinger pope has only added to the popular imagination about how these two popes of such different style, background and priorities might get along.

Perhaps over their primo, or pasta course during Saturday's lunch, they discussed the big issues facing the church: the rise of secularism in the world, the drop in priestly vocations in Europe, the competition that the Catholic Church faces in Latin America and Africa from evangelical Pentecostal movements.

During their secondo, or second course of meat or fish, they might have gone over more pressing issues about Francis' new job: Benedict left a host of unfinished business on Francis' plate, including the outcome of a top-secret investigation into the leaks of papal documents last year that exposed corruption and mismanagement in the Vatican administration. Francis might have wanted to sound Benedict out on his ideas for management changes in the Holy See administration, a priority given the complete dysfunctional government he has inherited.

Over coffee, they might have discussed future of Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, Benedict's trusted aide who has had the difficult task of escorting his old pope into retirement and then returning to the Vatican to serve his successor in the initial rites of the office.

Gaenswein, who wept as he and Benedict made their final goodbyes to staff in the papal apartment on Feb. 28, has appeared visibly upset and withdrawn at times as he has been by Francis' side. The Vatican has said Francis' primary secretary will be Monsignor Alfred Xuereb, who had been the No. 2 secretary under Benedict.

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