Is Pope Francis’ Pontificate a continuation of Benedict’s?

Pope Francis and Pope Benedict embraced like brothers and prayed in the same pew when they met March 23 at Castel Gandolfo. Both were wearing white cassocks, but the white slash and the cape donned over the vest distinguished Pope Francis’ role as ruling Pope.

That day, they spoke alone for 45 minutes in the library of the papal villa. The image of the two white-dressed pontiffs praying together marked in some ways the handover from Pope Benedict to Pope Francis. Yet, as this historic moment of having a Pope and a Pope Emeritus begins to unfold, naturally the question arises: Is Pope Francis’ pontificate a continuation of Benedict’s?

Pope Francis has already often referred to Benedict XVI’s pontificate. In the meeting with the Corps of Ambassadors accredited to the Holy See on March 22, he quoted the “dictatorship of relativism” one of Benedict’s central themes.  In the homily he held at the March 19 Inaugural Mass, he said that he wanted to go on with the Year of Faith he inherited from Pope Benedict.

In fact, there are several signals of continuity between Benedict and Francis, yet they put into practice their ideas in slightly different ways. First of all, some of the topics Pope Francis talked about are typically Ratzingerian. For example, expressing love for creation.

Benedict XVI has paid much attention to the topic of the environment since his very first speech. He wrote about it in the encyclical Caritas in Veritate.  He dedicated his 2010 World Day of Peace message and the 2010 address to diplomats accredited to the Holy See to the topic. Foreign Policy, a prestigious American geopolitics magazine, ranked Benedict XVI 17th among the ‘Top 100 Global Thinkers’ of 2009, because he had “positioned the Church prominently and unexpectedly as an advocate for the environment and warned against the perils of climate change.”

Pope Francis raised the issue for the protection of the environment and of society’s most vulnerable during his formal installation Mass at the Vatican on March 19.  And he also called for the love of creation in his address to the diplomats accredited to the Holy See on March 22. Environmental protection is likely to be a central theme of Francis’ papacy as it was for Benedict’s papacy.

It is also predictable that nothing will change regarding interreligious dialogue (when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis worked to improve the dialogue among religions) and moral issues (Cardinal Bergoglio was a strong contester of same sex “marriages” in Argentina).

Similarly, Benedict and Francis seem alike in their use of liturgy to focus on Christ.

It’s clear that Pope Francis does not want the Mass to become the “pope’s show” with a few privileged people who can receive Communion from him. So, at the moment of the distribution of Communion, so far, he has been seated, while deacons and priests bring Communion to the people. He did this at the Vatican parish of St. Anna and at Mass for the beginning of his Petrine ministry.

Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, explained in a media briefing on March 18 regarding the installation Mass the following day that the “Pope prefers not to distribute Communion, and he prefers it to be brought by deacons and priests.”

In fact, Pope Francis brought Communion to a very few people at the Palm Sunday Mass as well, but, according to Father Lombardi, this practice is expected to be an exception rather than the rule.

Pope Francis also eliminated the offertory procession at his installation Mass, which typically features many Catholics or groups of Catholics bringing gifts directly to the seated pope. Thus Pope Francis seems to want to remove himself from the center of liturgical stage.

For his part, Benedict XVI also wanted to refocus the liturgy. In the interview that became the book The Ratzinger Report, the then Cardinal Ratzinger maintained that “behind different ways to conceive liturgy, there are, as usually, different ways to conceive the Church, and so God and the human being relationship with God.” In his tenure as Pope, Benedict XVI introduced some slight changes to the liturgy. He increased the availability of the Traditional Latin Mass, but more central to his liturgical attitude was emphasizing that Christ — who is the center of the Mass — needed to be more visible.

So, Benedict moved the cross from the side to the center of the altar in order that the faithful could look more easily to the cross, and not simply to the priest. He wanted those who would receive Communion from the Pope to take it on their knees and on the tongue, to underlined the sacredness of the moment. He asked for some moments of silence and prayer after the Communion. He wanted to underline the universality of the Church by using Latin language at the moment of the consecration.

On the other hand, there are also signals of discontinuity between Benedict and Francis.

Since his very first address from the loggia of blessings to the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square after he was elected, Pope Francis has always referred to himself as “Bishop of Rome,” and referred to Pope Benedict XVI as the “Bishop of Rome emeritus.”

In fact, the title the Vatican has given for Benedict XVI is “Pope emeritus,” but as of yet Pope Francis has not referred to his predecessor as such. (Francis is particularly reticent to refer to his own ministry as that of Pope, and he hasn’t done so publically yet during the first weeks of his papacy).

Benedict XVI, on the other hand, is very conscious of the importance of the role of Roman pontiff. A shy and humble person, he never loved to be at the center of the stage. But, since he had to, he wanted to underline that this was not because he is the Pope, but because of the universal role of the Roman Pontiff.

This is one of the reasons why he restored some ancient liturgical vestments — like  the fanon he wore on Oct. 21, 2012, during a canonization Mass, and again on Christmas Day 2012, and Jan. 6, 2013. (A fanon is a vestment reserved for Pope alone and for use only during a Pontifical Mass, and it consists of a doubled shoulder cape of white silk ornamented with narrow woven golden stripes, so that the colors alternate white and gold).

Pope Benedict also wanted to underline that he is “Roman Pontiff” even in his very last speech as Pope, from the balcony of the Pontifical Villa in Castel Gandolfo on Feb. 28.

Pope Francis, on the other hand, is seemingly bringing the Church to a new way of practicing the Petrine ministry.

Until now, Pope Francis always held his speeches in Italian. He spoke in Italian speaking to ambassadors accredited to the Holy See, while by tradition the speech has been in French. He also spoke in Italian at the first Mass he held as Pope, in the Sistine Chapel, while by tradition the Pope used to address to cardinals in Latin. And he spoke from the ambo, and not from the Papal seat (ex cathedra), and he held a simple homily, while everybody expected an address about how he intends to govern.

Sandro Magister, a prominent Vatican watcher, wrote on his website: “Francis is a pope of unpredictable remarks. And sooner or later it is expected that he will speak out, making explicit the vision that he has of his role. But in the meantime it is happening that those inside and outside of the Church who are hoping for the reduction, if not the demolition, of papal primacy see in him the man to meet their expectations. Expectations that they often base upon a presumed ‘spirit’ of the council.”

Francis is also seemingly bringing on a sort of de-centralization of the pontificate, driving it to be always more considered that of the bishop of Rome, more than of the pope. This would lead to improve ecumenical dialogue.

On the other hand, if the primacy of papacy is put under discussion, the basis of the Second Vatican Council (whose novelty consisted just in integrating the pope’s power of primacy with the power of the college of bishops of which he is a part, and not in weakening the primacy, as stated in the dogmatic constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium, one of the four Constitutions issued by the Second Vatican Council) could be at risk. Pope Francis has yet to articulate his emphasis. But many in the Church wait for his next move.  Some even wonder: Will he initiate a Third Vatican Council?