VATICAN CITY – In an unprecedented blending of papacies past, present and future, retired Pope Benedict XVI joined Pope Francis at a ceremony Saturday to formally install new cardinals who will one day elect their successor.
It was the first time Benedict and Francis have appeared together at a public liturgical ceremony since Benedict retired a year ago, becoming the first pope to step down in more than 600 years. It may signal that after a year of staying “hidden from the world,” Benedict may occasionally be reintegrated into the public life of the church.
Benedict entered St. Peter’s Basilica discreetly from a side entrance surrounded by a small entourage and was greeted with applause and tears from the stunned people in the pews. He smiled, waved and seemed genuinely happy to be there, taking his seat in the front row, off to the side, alongside the red-draped cardinals.
“We are grateful for your presence here among us,” newly minted Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, told Benedict in his introductory remarks.
Francis warmly greeted his predecessor at the start and end of the service, clasping him by his shoulders and embracing him. Benedict removed his white skullcap in a show of respect as Francis approached.
But in a sign that Benedict still commands the honor and respect owed a pope, each of the 19 new cardinals – after receiving his red hat from Francis at the altar – went directly to Benedict’s seat to greet him before then exchanging a sign of peace with the other cardinals.
They had, however, already pledged their fidelity to Francis in an oath of obedience.
Saturday’s surprise event was the latest in the evolving reality for the church of having two popes living side-by-side in the Vatican. Over the summer, Francis and Benedict appeared together in the Vatican gardens for a ceremony to unveil a statue.
But Saturday’s event was something else entirely, a liturgical service inside St. Peter’s Basilica marking one of the most important things a pope can do: create new cardinals.
Benedict had no formal role whatsoever in the ceremony, but his presence could signal a new phase in his cloistered retirement that began with his Feb. 28, 2013, resignation. Chances are increasing that Benedict might also appear at the April 27 canonization of his predecessor, John Paul II, and Pope John XXIII.
The Rev. Robert Wister, a professor of church history at Seton Hall University, stressed that while it was a unique moment, Benedict was certainly present for the ceremony at Francis’ invitation and that Francis was the only actual pope in the basilica elevating cardinals.
He said he didn’t think Benedict would gradually return to any major ceremonial role in the church, both because his 86 years make it increasingly difficult for him to get through long services and because doing so would be “highly problematic, given that some cardinals and Curialists (Vatican bureaucrats) yearn for a return to the ‘good old days.’ “
Benedict’s decision to appear at the consistory could also be seen as a blessing of sorts for the 19 men Francis had chosen to join the College of Cardinals, the elite group of churchmen whose primary job is to elect a pope.
Francis’ choices largely reflected his view that the church must minister to the peripheries and be a place of welcome and mercy, not a closed institution of rules. In addition to a few Vatican bureaucrats, he named like-minded cardinals from some of the poorest places on Earth, Haiti, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast among them.