There had never been a photo like it before. Two men wearing the white papal cassocks embracing. Almost by definition the previous Pope is dead and buried before his successor assumes the papal office. On March 23rd this image changed when Pope Francis visited Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI at Castel Gandolfo.
The helicopter had barely settled on the tarmac before Pope Francis enthusiastically greeted his predecessor like an old friend. It was a beautiful and touching moment immortalized on film.
After the initial meeting, they immediately went to the chapel to pray together. There a special chair and prie-dieu for the Pope was set up at the front of the chapel. In a classic moment Pope Francis bypassed this place that was rightfully his as the Holy Father in order to join the Pope Emeritus in a regular pew. The feeble Pope Emeritus tried to grab Francis’ arm and corral him into the special chair, but the Pope would not have it. He whispered to Benedict XVI, “we are brothers”, and knelt next to him in the lower place.
Astounding! Here were two men who both enjoyed immense power in the Church as the leader of 1.2 billion souls and they were trying to outdo each other in humility. This was truly a unique and inspiring sight.
It was a great example of what Jesus tried to teach his apostles after they had been arguing about who was the greatest. “Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, ‘If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all’.” (Mark 9: 35) Pope St. Gregory the Great highlighted this very lesson when he coined the papal title of the “servant of the servants of God”. He knew that the Holy Father must lead with the example of humility and service.
St. Therese understood the virtue of humility well. She said that, “It appears to me that humility is the truth. I know not whether I am humble, but I know that I see the truth in all things”. (Thoughts of St. Therese, p. 40) St. Therese, Pope Francis, and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI all know the truth that God alone is truly great and that in comparison we are very small indeed. This truth can help all of us keep our egos in check. “Because I was little and weak, Jesus stooped down to me and tenderly instructed me in the secrets of His Love.” (Thoughts of St. Therese, p. 44)
I don’t know when Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI will meet again, but I’m sure that when they do they will still be trying to outdo each other in humility and service.