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Benedict’s funeral to bring ‘two popes’ era to a complicated close

Pope Francis embraces Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI at the Vatican on June 28, 2017. (L'Osservatore Romano/AP)

VATICAN CITY — One of the most atypical chapters in modern Catholic history began on March 13, 2013, when a just-elected Pope Francis, appearing on the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica, offered a prayer for his still-living predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

It culminated Saturday, nearly a decade later, when Benedict died at a monastery inside the Vatican: Francis was the first to rush over to see the body, a Holy See spokesman told The Washington Post.

But the delicate dance between the two popes — one current, one former — isn’t over yet, at least not entirely. That’s because Francis, in the final act of a relationship that was outwardly warm but often awkward, will be the one to frame the period of remembrance and mourning.

On Thursday, he’ll preside over Benedict’s funeral.

What will Pope Benedict’s funeral look like? Pope Francis will preside.

This precedent-setting week will be watched to see how fully Benedict is given the passages that would normally be afforded a sitting pope. Initial indications suggest that his funeral will have less pomp than the 2005 mass-scale ceremony for John Paul II. In this case, the Vatican said only two formal delegations will be attending, from Italy and from Benedict’s native Germany. Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said the funeral would be “simple.”

Also crucial is how Francis — for this first time in his pontificate, the only Vatican figure dressed in white — will speak about his predecessor. So far, in prayers on Saturday evening and Sunday, he has addressed Benedict’s death only in passing, calling him “noble” and “kind.” Francis has otherwise proceeded as normal with the Vatican’s New Year’s festivities. On Saturday, in a wheelchair, he waved to adoring supporters as he was pushed through St. Peter’s Square.

Marco Politi, a Francis biographer, predicted that the pope would manage this week with “diplomacy” and search for ways to show the common ground between himself and Benedict.

“This is a way for him to neutralize the enemies of his papacy,” Politi said.

How Benedict's death could reshape the Catholic Church

Politi said that within the church, “there’s a sense of relief, because this silent contrast between two figures and two visions of the church is now over.”

Benedict broke centuries of tradition in which popes served until death, and the need to coexist with his predecessor has been a defining aspect of Francis’s tenure, coinciding with a period of growing polarization within the faith.

For traditionalists, Benedict became a symbol of opposition. Conservative figures in the church would seek audiences with him. Far-right politicians would quote him — or John Paul II — instead of Francis.

Intrigue about their relationship has been so intense that it even inspired a movie, “The Two Popes,” which imagined the two verbally sparring, and ultimately enjoying one another, in a period before Benedict’s abdication.

In real life, Benedict showed deference to Francis and said there was only one authority figure at the top. Francis, in turn, regularly touted Benedict’s spirit and “intellectual insight.” After ceremonies to induct new cardinals, Francis would routinely lead them to greet Benedict, who lived in a monastery tucked behind St. Peter’s Basilica.

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But it sometimes proved treacherous having a retired pope — particularly one who lived so close to Francis and who chose to continue dressing in white. Benedict didn’t completely abide by his pledge to stay “hidden from the world,” causing maelstroms when he interjected himself into church affairs.

In 2019, he wrote a lengthy letter about sexual abuse, linking some of the church’s problems to the 1960s sexual revolution, a diagnosis that conflicted with Francis’s own theories about the root causes.

Ex-Pope Benedict contradicts Pope Francis in unusual intervention on sexual abuse

A year later, Benedict offered a defense of clerical celibacy, just as Francis was weighing a move to allow the ordination of married men in the Amazon to offset a dire priest shortage. Benedict later said there had been a “misunderstanding” with the co-author of the book where his remarks had appeared. Some church watchers speculated that the ex-pope risked being manipulated as he grew more frail.

Often Benedict’s and Francis’s stances were not so far apart; both have upheld church teaching on sexuality, for instance. But their philosophical differences were so pronounced that they seemed to represent opposite poles. Benedict, as pope, focused on upholding the eternal teachings of the faith, even if it meant a smaller church of ardent believers. Francis, by contrast, has traveled to countries with little Catholic presence, emphasized dialogue with Islam, and harnessed issues such as climate change and migration — areas that traditionalists say have little to do with the faith.

Pope Benedict, in retired seclusion, looms in the opposition to Pope Francis

While popes are always compared to their predecessors, it was wholly novel to have two living men with experience as the religion’s top moral and spiritual authority.

Even in St. Peter’s Square on Saturday, in the hours after Benedict’s death, people spoke about him in contrast to Francis.

Andrea Versace, 23, visiting Rome from the northern region of Veneto, described Benedict as “cold and detached,” as opposed to Francis, whom she sees as “more humble.”

Benedict’s death will have ripple effects for Francis. Some church watchers hope that he draws up formal rules that guide any future pontiff’s retirement — potentially requiring him to live outside the Vatican and revert to his given name. Such rules would have been awkward to create when Pope Benedict was still alive.

Francis, in past interviews, has said he views Benedict’s resignation as a precedent — something he would consider doing as well, should his health falter. For now, Francis has knee pain and struggles to walk. But he keeps a busy schedule.

Is Pope Francis nearing the end of his pontificate?

Francis, for his part, has said that he would be known as the bishop emeritus of Rome were he to step down. He said he would “surely not” stay in the Vatican.

In an interview last year with two Mexican journalists, Francis said that the first experience with a sitting pope and an ex-pope “went quite well,” because Benedict was “a holy and discreet man, and he knew how to do it well.”

“But for the future,” Francis said, “it’s appropriate to explain things better.”

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