The death of Benedict XVI has inaugurated the second phase of the pontificate of Pope Francis. For the first time since he has been Pope, Francis will not have to cohabit with the Pope Emeritus.
Benedict XVI had always made it clear that he was no longer Pope and was no longer a point of reference for anyone from that point of view. It was Pope Francis himself, however, who gave the Pope emeritus an essential role in the life of the Church: he had wanted him in the consistories, and when it became difficult for Benedict XVI to move around, he always wanted the new cardinals to visit him and he accompanied them; he often mentioned Benedict as an example, especially on the issue of fighting sexual abuse; he constantly visited him.
After all, in this new phase, Pope Francis also finds himself a little more alone because the presence of Benedict XVI, with his prayer of intercession, remained a point of reference.
Thus begins a new era in this pontificate, at least from the point of view of perception. Pope Francis, over the years, has not failed to make personal decisions which marked an apparent discontinuity from the previous pontificate. The most recent one is the promulgation of the Traditionis Custodes, which annulled the earlier decision of Benedict XVI to liberalize the use of the ancient rite for the celebration of Mass.
This decision had aroused perplexity in Benedict XVI, at least according to the account given by his private secretary, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, in the memoir “Nothing but the truth.”
The absence of Benedict XVI, however, opens a new phase. Not only will Pope Francis not have to worry about the presence of the Pope Emeritus, but even those who do not share Francis’ ideas will be unencumbered by the presence of the Pope Emeritus.
Indeed, Benedict XVI has always preferred unity and harmony to dialectics. In his decisions, he had always tried to find a synthesis between several points of view, looking for elegant solutions in which no one feels excluded or marginalized. And he always asked everyone for this, even when he was no longer pontiff.
The presence of Benedict XVI thus balanced the more challenging conservative front and made it possible to avoid a confrontation in the open field and a direct attack on the Pope. The hesitations regarding the Pope were not only doctrinal but also, above all, concerned the government. The presence of Benedict XVI guaranteed a pax ecclesiae that helped Pope Francis himself.
Without the figure of Benedict XVI, the risk is to find ourselves on an open battlefield. The Pope emeritus taught that the history of the Church took place in continuity with the past and invited us to appreciate the reasons of others without antagonizing them.
Pope Francis, on the contrary, is a man of divisive, strong, and sometimes even harsh decisions. It has always been like this. It was a characteristic trait of his, even as a young provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina.
The clash can arise precisely starting from the celebrations of the funeral of Benedict XVI. Concerned at all costs to show that Benedict was no longer the Pope in office, Pope Francis was cold, detached, and almost annoyed by people’s affection for his predecessor. There is no photo of the Pope praying in front of Benedict XVI’s coffin in the Vatican Basilica, nor did Francis go down to the Vatican grottoes for burial.
This behavior has not left anyone indifferent and brings with it several consequences. Even Curia officials saw an injustice in the way the celebration of the funeral was conducted. And the reasoning is that, if Pope Francis manages to detach himself even from the memory of a deceased, he could do it with anyone. Therefore, every deference is dropped, and every criticism will be let free.
Upon the death of Benedict XVI, two interviews with Archbishop Gaesnwein were published, and then there was the release of a book of memoirs that was ready for publication precisely at the end of the Pope Emeritus’ life.
Some of the statements in the book and the interviews have received worldwide attention. Gaenswein, with total openness, also addressed controversial aspects of the pontificate, including his demotion / non-demotion from his position as prefect of the Papal Household.
We can discuss at length the appropriateness of Gaenswein immediately granting these interviews and publishing this book. On the other hand, however, the personal secretary of the Pope Emeritus provides a series of details on the modus operandi of Pope Francis, which are revealing. Like the fact that when Pope Francis is told that his decisions can represent a humiliation for some people, the Pope replies: “Humiliations are good” or “this humiliation has done me good in my life.”
This story corroborates others on the Pope’s personality and suggests that few will want to accept being mistreated. The Pope is the Pope, and no one questions him, but now there is no longer the fear of being set aside.
Also because Pope Francis has almost always provisionally taken decisions with “light” documents, which were therefore difficult to oppose. When there were reforms that required great analysis, such as the reform of the Curia or the recent one on the Vicariate of Rome, Pope Francis suddenly published the final texts, almost by surprise.
Cardinal Pell had noted this modus operandi of the Pope in a memorandum distributed to all cardinals last March, signed Demos. With the death of Cardinal Pell, Vatican correspondent Sandro Magister revealed that Demos was indeed Cardinal Pell. His point of view will still be continued.
Also, because it is a point of view shared by the cardinals, suffice it to say that about twenty cardinals of very different orientations reportedly – according to rumors - sent a letter to the Pope two weeks ago to prevent the appointment of bishop Heiner Wilmer as prefect of the Dicastery of Faith. The fact that the letter was there (or was reported about) and seemed to have been brought to the Pope by Cardinal Parolin says a lot about the climate already reigning at the end of last year.
Pope Francis will want to make the decisions himself, and in some cases, he will grant others the honor of arms. But that probably won’t be enough. If the Pope does not take a few steps back, at least on a dialectical level, an even more evident and noisy opposition will be found.
This opposition might be the symptom of a perhaps too secular mentality that has taken over the Church. A mentality that, in any case, Pope Francis has supported and approved. The future of the Church will now depend on how well Pope Francis can maintain the pax ecclesiae in a time of turbulence. The death of Benedict XVI does not help because his task will be more difficult. He now really is a Pope alone in command.