25 Mar 2013

Pope meets with predecessor in historic visit

10:45 am on 25 March 2013

Newly elected Pope Francis has met his predecessor for lunch, the first such meeting possible for more than 600 years.

Pope Francis was flown by helicopter to Castel Gandolfo for the private lunch with Pope Emeritus Benedict on Saturday. A spokesperson for the Vatican said the atmosphere for the three-hour visit was "family-like".

Benedict, 85, has lived at the lakeside castle south of Rome since he became the first pontiff in six centuries to resign on 28 February this year, citing ill health.

Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio from Argentina was elected to succeed him on 13 March. The 76-year-old is the first pope from Latin America.

There was no official communique on the results of the Pope's visit to Castel Gandolfo, but on the agenda were some delicate handover details, including a top secret paper prepared by Benedict on last year's scandal involving leaked documents, the BBC reports.

The new head of the Catholic Church is usually elected after the death of his predecessor, and there is no public record of any previous meeting between an incumbent pope and a former pope.

In 1294, former hermit Celestine V resigned after five months as pope. Boniface VIII was elected days later, and had his predecessor imprisoned. Celestine was dead within a year.

In contrast, Pope Francis has spoken warmly of his predecessor.

The two men rode in the same car to the residence where they prayed together at a chapel, spoke alone for about 45 minutes and then had lunch accompanied by their two secretaries, Reuters reports.

When they went to pray, Benedict offered the place of honour, a kneeler before the altar, to Francis, who declined, saying: "We are brothers, we pray together," Vatican spokesperson Federico Lombardi said. Footage showed the two men praying at the same pew.

The only difference in garb is that Francis also wears a short white cape over his cassock and a white sash around his waist - both symbols of his authority. Benedict, who often suffers from chills, wore a thick white vest over his cassock.

Pope Francis will begin the Catholic Church's most important liturgical season with a Palm Sunday Mass in St Peter's Square. He will then lead six more liturgies during the week, culminating with the Easter Sunday Mass and Urbi et Orbi blessing.

Benedict is expected to stay on at the papal summer residence until new accommodation being prepared for him inside the walls of Vatican City is ready at the end of April. Shortly before resigning, he said he would be "withdrawing into prayer" and living out his remaining days "hidden from the world".