In an article today in the Vatican Insider, Andrea Tornielli highlights the “normalization” of the status of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in relation to his successor, Pope Francis. Much of what this post says is derived from Tornielli’s analysis, but I think its crucial for English-speakers to have access to the symbolism of yesterday’s Consistory. One of my concerns, right from the beginning, and that of many other ecclesiologists, has been about the danger of having “two popes” on the scene – particularly given how tempting it might be for a former pope to intervene directly in the governance of the Church.
Benedict has set an astounding example in the past year of how to be a Pope Emeritus, no doubt conscious of the lasting precedent his actions will create for any future papi emeriti. His real yet silent presence in the Vatican alone has already established a solid model of how future retired popes ought to act – and not act – for the good of the Church. For a pope known to have very definite theological opinions, some of which are distinctly different in style and perhaps content from that of Pope Francis, Benedict has set a high bar and helped himself to normalize the idea of having a pope and a former pope in a Church where multiple popes have been a problem in the past.
Yesterday at the Consistory for the creation of new cardinals on the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI surprised many of the cardinals themselves by arriving through a side entrance, at the invitation of Pope Francis. Tornielli points to two significant symbolic gestures that provide further precedent for how a Pope Emeritus ought to relate to his successor. The first was his choice of seat – rather than sitting in a place of honor, lower than Francis, perhaps, but above the gathered cardinals, Benedict chose to sit with the cardinal bishops, in a plain seat next to theirs, off to the side – literally putting himself at the margin of the College of Cardinals. (Luke 14:7-11 anyone?)
The second symbolic act occurred when Pope Francis greeted Benedict during the ceremony, when Benedict removed his zucchetto – the small skullcap that clergy wear – in an act of respect for the pope. Now, you may not have thought much about this, but hats are kind of a big deal in the Catholic Church. And removing your hat, whether mitre or zucchetto, is an act of respect; so, for instance, a bishop removes his mitre when hearing the Gospel, and removes his zucchetto for the Eucharistic prayer; similarly, a cleric removes his zucchetto when greeting a superior. So for those who know how to read the code, and trust me, the majority of the people at the Consistory did, Benedict could not be clearer in expressing his respect for, and submission to, Francis.
Tornielli discusses this primarily in the context of the “normalization” of the status of Benedict XVI, still mostly “hidden away” from the world, but especially one year on able to be integrated into current Vatican protocol without being perceived as a threat to Francis’s authority. But most importantly, I think, it also helps to normalize the relation of future papi emeriti to their predecessors. Benedict may no longer be pope, but through his example he continues to serve the Catholic Church, today and, uniquely, for centuries.