VATICAN CITY — More than two months after his resignation, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI will return to the Vatican on Thursday to live in a small convent that has been recently renovated for his needs.
Benedict’s return will face the Vatican with the unprecedented situation of a reigning pope and a retired pope living a short distance from each other.
The potential difficulty is compounded by the fact that Benedict’s personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, will move in with the former pope while he continues to serve as Pope Francis’ Prefect of the Papal Household, charged with setting his schedule and audiences.
Benedict’s second secretary, the Rev. Alfred Xuereb, a Maltese priest, has also been serving as a personal aide to the Argentine pontiff since his election.
The two popes have already met and prayed together when Francis visited Benedict at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo. They have also often spoken on the phone, according to the Vatican.
Ahead of his resignation, Benedict, now 86, said he would “withdraw into prayer” and live his final years “hidden from the world.”
But experts fear that the former pope, a staunchly conservative German theologian, could become a lightning rod for those who might oppose Francis’ announced reforms of the Catholic Church, especially if he ever deviated from Benedict’s precedents.
Francis set up a group of eight cardinals from all over the world to advise him on the running of the church and on how to run the scandal-plagued Roman Curia, the church’s central administration.
The creation of the group has sparked expectations of wide-ranging reforms among Catholics.
But in an interview on the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, on Tuesday Archbishop Angelo Becciu, deputy to Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, shot down media speculations of possible reforms and said it was “premature” to draw any conclusions.
Since his election on March 13, Pope Francis has given the papacy a distinctly different style to the papacy from the aloofness of his predecessor, washing the feet of young female inmates on Maundy Thursday and shunning the luxurious papal apartments to live in a Vatican guesthouse.
But doctrinally, Francis has so far walked on the same path as Benedict. He recently confirmed an investigation on American nuns launched by his predecessor.
Announcing Benedict’s returns, the Vatican’s chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, also denied rumors of the former pontiff’s declining health. “He’s an elderly man, weakened by age, but he has no illness,” he said.
In the small Mater Ecclesiae convent inside the Vatican, Benedict will be assisted by four members of Memores Domini, the conservative lay-Catholic group who already staffed his apartment during his pontificate.
His apartment will include includes a guest room for his older brother Georg.
Benedict will return to the Vatican by helicopter, just as he left on February 28, but it is not known whether Pope Francis will personally welcome his to the Vatican.
Alessandro Speciale writes for Religion News Service. Via RNS.