For the past 20 years, Dr. Matthew E. Bunson has been active in the area of Catholic social communications and education, including writing, editing, and teaching on a variety of topics related to Church history, the papacy, the saints and Catholic culture. He is faculty chair at Catholic Distance University, a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and the author or co-author of over 50 books including: The Encyclopedia of Catholic History, The Pope Encyclopedia, We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI, The Saints Encyclopedia and best-selling biographies of St. Damien of Molokai and St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
As is usually the case, Pope Francis’ in-flight press conference created a stir and brought out the typical media obsession with hot-button issues. Somewhat overlooked were his comments about Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
Francis was asked by Elisabetta Piqué of the Argentinian paper La Nación about the retired pope, specifically to respond to the statements from the prefect of the papal household, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, that there is a kind of “shared Petrine ministry,” with an active pope and a contemplative one.
Pope Francis’ response touched on two important points.
First, there is only one pope.
Second, there’s a new reality—now in its third year of existence—that invites the Church to reflect on the practical and possible spiritual ramifications of having two popes, even if one is retired. This is still new territory for all of us, and while Pope Francis may have politely disagreed with Archbishop Gänswein, the prefect of Francis’ own papal household (not to mention still secretary to the Pope Emeritus) has sparked an important conversation.
“Benedict is a pope emeritus,” Pope Francis observed, adding, “He said it clearly that February 11th  when he was giving his resignation as of February 28th when he would retire and help the Church with prayer.”
Francis stressed that Benedict has been faithful to his promise of obedience to his successor and even repeated a possible rumor that he had heard:
I never forget that speech he made to us cardinals on February 28th, ‘among you I’m sure that there is my successor. I promise obedience.’ And he’s done it. But, then I’ve heard, but I don’t know if it’s true, this, eh — I underscore, I heard this, maybe they’re just rumors but they fit with his character — that some have gone there [to him] to complain because of this new Pope… and he chased them away, eh, with the best Bavarian style, educated, but he chased them away. I don’t know if it’s true. It’s welcome because this man is like that. He’s a man of his word, an upstanding, upstanding, upstanding man.
This would be in keeping with the saintly, faithful and wise Father Benedict (as he now prefers to be called), of course, but for a pope of supposed revolutionary innovations Francis is also clearly cognizant that there is and can be only one Vicar of Christ.
And yet, there is now room for an emeritus pope, and Francis appreciates that Benedict has given himself to this new life of study but above all to prayer. This is an unexpected blessing to Pope Francis and to the whole Church. Not only does the Holy Father have someone to consult who has been pope before him and who understands the immensity of the burden he carries, he derives great comfort from the Pope Emeritus’ prayers.
“Benedict is in the monastery praying,” Pope Francis said. “He is the man that protects my shoulders and back with his prayer.”
Francis respects him immensely, especially his wisdom and humility—so much so that despite a mere decade in age between them, he views Benedict as his wise old grandfather.
Pope Francis, however, also continues to reflect on the notion of popes emeriti. On the flight back from Armenia, he said:
Seventy years ago, bishops emeriti didn’t exist. Today, we have them … but with this lengthening of life, but can you run a Church at this age, with aches and pains or not? And he, courageously, and with prayer and with science, with theology decided to open this door and I believe that this is good for the Church. But there is one single Pope, and the other… maybe they will be like the bishops emeriti, I’m not saying many but possibly there could be two or three. They will be emeriti... They are emeriti.
A few months ago, Pope Francis seemed to dismiss any immediate plans for his own retirement. He told a group of young people that he was too busy to retire. The idea of popes emeriti, though, is still in the mind of the Holy Father. The door first opened by Benedict XVI remains before him, and the more we contemplate this new reality, the better prepared we will all be if and when the population of retired popes increases. If the image of two men dressed in white was jarring, imagine three of them in prayer together in St. Peter’s.