VATICAN CITY (RNS) More than two months after his resignation, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI will return to the Vatican on Thursday (May 2) to live in a small retrofitted convent.
Benedict’s return will present 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 the prefect of the Papal Household, charged with managing the schedule for Pope Francis.
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 observers fear that the staunchly conservative former pope could become a lightning rod for those who might oppose Francis’ announced reforms, especially if he ever deviated from Benedict’s precedents.
Francis set up a group of eight cardinals from around the world to advise him on the running of the church and on how to rein in the scandal-plagued Roman Curia, the church’s central bureaucracy.
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 (April 30), Archbishop Angelo Becciu, deputy to Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, shot down media speculations of possible reforms, saying it was “premature” to draw any conclusions.
Since his election on March 13, Pope Francis has given the papacy a distinctly different style than the aloofness of his predecessor, washing the feet of young female inmates during Holy Week and shunning the luxurious papal apartments in favor of a Vatican guesthouse.
But doctrinally, Francis has so far walked on the same path as Benedict. He recently allowed an investigation on American nuns launched by his predecessor to continue.
Announcing Benedict’s return, the Vatican’s chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, denied rumors of Benedict’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 group who staffed his apartment during his pontificate.
His apartment will includes a guest room for his older brother Georg, who’s also a priest.
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 him back to the Vatican.