February 2, 2023

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Benedict’s funeral leaves Francis alone and unattached

VATICAN CITY — Since day one of his papacy nearly a decade ago, Pope Francis has had to navigate an unprecedented complication in the Roman Catholic Church: coexistence with his retired predecessor in the same Vatican gardens. Supporters of Francis eagerly downplayed the two-popes anomaly, but it caused confusion, particularly as conservative acolytes of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI sought to wrap their fierce opposition in their leader’s white robes.

Now, with Benedict’s funeral on Thursday, Francis, never shy about exercising his power, is unleashed for the first time.

“Now I’m sure he will take it on,” said Oswald Gracias, the Archbishop of Mumbai, as he walked through St. Peter’s Square ahead of Benedict’s requiem mass.

Often shying away from ongoing general overhauls, some Liberal supporters of Francis are raising expectations for a late-breaking season of change.

Many bishops and cardinals in the Vatican are convinced “that he is thinking ahead,” said Gerard O’Connell, Vatican correspondent for America magazine. “What is changing now is that the opposition will not have the collectible figure that manipulates Benedict. Francis has a very clear agenda.”

Mr. O’Connell, the author of The Election of Pope Francis: An Inside Story of the Conclave That Changed History, envisioned an immediate future of quicker personnel decisions and the placement of more lay Catholics in power. He said a new document on morals, sexuality and contraception was under discussion. He also predicted the resumption of important issues.

Francis has already allowed debate on important and previously taboo subjects, such as: In 2021, he appeared ready to allow married men in far-flung areas like the Amazon to become priests. While an unexpected statement of opposition from Benedict, or those writing on his behalf, might have helped Francis back down, he left the door open.

Francis’ already absolute leadership in the Church is being increasingly strengthened by a hierarchy in his image. By the end of the year, Francis will almost certainly fill the College of Cardinals with hand-picked appointments. His elected prelates will then most likely make up two-thirds of the body, the threshold required to elect the next pope.

That number could be even higher if he stays in power until the end of 2024, when the second of two major meetings of the world’s bishops he has called will end. These so-called synods, deeply vilified by Benedict’s wing, are the fulfillment of Francis’ vision of fostering consensus for major changes in the Church.

While that’s all in the future, what’s certain is that Francis seems eager to put an end to grievances about the past. On Friday, a day after his predecessor’s funeral, Pope Francis appeared to be trying to quell grumblings from Benedict’s supporters, who accused him of missing Benedict in his funeral sermon and disappointing the pope emeritus repeatedly over the past decade. by repeating the words of Benedict XVI. on avoiding the petty and mundane and putting faith above all else.

In a remark widely interpreted in the Vatican as a direct response to complaints from Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Benedict’s closest collaborator, Pope Francis said during Mass: “Let us worship God, not ourselves; Let us worship God and not the false idols who deceive by the lure of prestige or power, or by the lure of false news.”

The new era also ended the odd business of church officials denying any awkwardness in the two-popes epoch.

Cardinal Gracias said there was continuity between Benedict, whom he admired and who had made him cardinal, and Francis, who he said was a “great supporter”.

“Pope Francis was not influenced” by Benedict or his clique, Cardinal Juan José Omella of Spain said on the day of Benedict’s funeral.

“There weren’t two popes,” agreed Mario Iceta Gavicagogeascoa, the archbishop of Burgos, Spain. Benedict had retired to his monastery and so “there was only one pope, Francis”.

But after Benedict’s death, the calculations in the Vatican changed significantly.

“It would be difficult to have two popes emeritus,” a French bishop, Jean-Yves Riocreux, said Thursday, adding that the biggest difference for Francis after Benedict’s death is “that he can resign now.”

While Francis has considered retiring, Vatican analysts say that if his health holds up and he continues to enjoy his work as pope, it is unlikely that he would hand things over to a successor who his legacy as he could undo has teetered off at Benedict.

In fact, conservative critics of Francis are already fearing the worst.

“Apparently Francis declared year zero, said goodbye to all of that, etc.” explained on Thursday on Twitter after what he thought was a poor sermon from Francis to Benedict. “Bad times are ahead for the faithful Orthodox Catholics.”

However, some Vatican analysts take the opposite view that Francis will not now be the only force with a freer hand. Frustrated conservatives and traditionalists, they say, will no longer feel chastised by Benedict, who at times provided cover for Francis by telling his own supporters to chill it. Instead, some predict they will wage an even more open war against Francis, since Francis has already dropped the gavel on their beloved Old Latin Masses.

Francis doesn’t seem too concerned. He has mostly shrugged off their criticism, and in 2019, when asked about a possible split by arch-conservatives in the Catholic Church, he replied: “I pray there are no divisions, but I’m not afraid.”

More than the Conservative opposition, Francis has held back on important issues, Mr O’Connell said, seeking collegial consensus to move the whole church forward on the big changes. “His purpose is to preserve the unity of the Church,” Mr. O’Connell said. “And that’s the limitation.”

Francis hopes to reach that consensus or something similar at two major bishops’ meetings in the next two years. But at the Vatican, two years is plenty of time for something to go wrong and for Francis to slow down.

To the chagrin of his critics, Francis has demonstrated political agility, media savvy, and apparent insensitivity to the scandals and crises that so stymied Benedict during his eight-year tenure.

Benedict often stumbled over political missteps. He openly admitted that he was not an administrator and seemed to prefer the books of a theologian to the platform of the world’s most powerful pastor. He surrounded himself with intrigue-prone Italians in the Curia, the Roman bureaucracy that governs the Church, and eventually resigned amid cheesy scandals at the Vatican, including the theft of his documents by a butler.

In contrast, Francis relies on a few trusted ministers, often Jesuits like himself, who operate outside of the traditional Vatican power structure. He has demonstrated an ability to recover from mistakes and managed to keep the usual Vatican intrigues at bay with a mixture of good appointments and draconian governance.

If tongues wagged with Benedict, heads rolled with Francis.

When an embarrassing scandal broke in 2020 over the possible misuse of funds to buy a house in London, Francis publicly humiliated one of his top cardinals and stripped him of his privileges, including voting in conclave.

And in a more serious crisis, when Francis wrongly sided with his bishops in Chile over sex abuse victims whom he accused of “slander,” he reversed himself, ordered an investigation, and “essentially dismissed half” of them Bishops in Chile. said Joshua J. McElwee, editor at The National Catholic Reporter and associate editor of “A Pope Francis Lexicon,” a collection of essays about the pope.

“He has shown an incredible ability to change his mind and adapt to the realization that he was wrong,” he said.

Or, as John L. Allen Jr., the editor of Crux, a news site specializing in coverage of the Vatican and the Catholic Church, put it more politically, Francis and his team “can see a train wreck coming and try it on get away with it in a way that Benedict and his team never did.”

Adept crisis management, a clear agenda and a now-fragmented conservative opposition have enabled Francis to make the changes his supporters so hunger for.

Alberto Fernandez, a priest in Madrid who traveled to Rome to attend Benedict’s funeral, said that “over time it became commonplace” to see two popes in the Vatican. Now that there’s one again, he expects Francis to stay the same path.

“The Pope has been Francis for almost 10 years,” he said. “That was the change.”

Gaia Pianigiani and Emma Bubola contributed reports from Rome.