VATICAN CITY — Since the first day of his papacy nearly a decade ago, Pope Francis has faced a complication unprecedented in the Roman Catholic Church: co-existence with his retired predecessor in the same Vatican gardens. Francis’ supporters played down the two-pontiff discrepancy carefully, but it has led to confusion, especially as conservative followers of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI sought to wrap their fierce opposition to their leader in white robes.

Now, with Benedict’s funeral on Thursday, Francis, who has never hesitated to exercise his power, is unbound for the first time.

“Now, I’m sure he’ll take it,” Archbishop Oswald Gracias of Mumbai said as he walked around St Peter’s Square ahead of Benedict’s funeral Mass.

Some moderate supporters of Francis, who often shies away from pushing major overhauls, are raising hopes of a late-season breakaway of change.

Many bishops and cardinals in the Vatican are convinced that “he is forward-thinking,” said Gerard O’Connell, Vatican correspondent for America magazine. “What changes now that the opposition will not have Benedict as a rallying figure to manipulate. Francis has a very clear agenda.

Mr. O’Connell, author of “The Election of Pope Francis: An Inside Story of the Conclave That Changed History,” envisions an immediate future of faster personnel decisions and more Catholics in power. He said there was talk of a new document on ethics, sexuality and contraception. He also predicted a re-thinking of key issues.

Francis has already allowed debate on key and previously taboo topics such as being more inclusive of gay people and giving women bigger roles in the church. In 2021, he seemed ready to allow married men to become priests in remote areas such as the Amazon. While an unexpected expression of opposition from Benedict, or those writing in his name, may have contributed to Francis’s pulling back, he left the door open.

Already absolute, Francis’ leadership in the Church is being increasingly strengthened by a hierarchy in his image. By the end of the year, Francis will almost certainly fill the College of Cardinals with elected appointments. He is likely to make up two-thirds of the body of bishops elected, the threshold required to elect the next pope.

If he remains in power until the end of 2024, this number could increase even more, when the second of two major meetings of the world’s bishops called by him ends. Those so-called synods, deeply reviled by Benedict’s wing, are the fulfillment of Francis’ vision to foster consensus for major changes in the Church.

While all of this remains in the future, what seems certain is that Francis is eager to put an end to complaints about the past. On Friday, a day after his predecessor’s burial, Francis appeared to fend off grumblings by Benedict’s loyalists, who accused him of giving Benedict less time at his funeral home and repeatedly disappointing the pope emeritus over the past decade. was accused of. By quoting Benedict XVI’s own words about avoiding the petty and the mundane and keeping the faith above all else.

In a remark widely interpreted in the Vatican as a direct response to complaints from Benedict’s closest aide, Archbishop Georges Ghenswyn – who has a book coming out – Francis said during Mass, “Let us worship God , not ourselves; let us worship God, and not false idols that are seduced by the allure of fame or power, or by the allure of false news.”

The New Age also put an end to the strange business of church officials, denying any strangeness in the two-pope era.

Cardinal Gracias said there was continuity between Benedict, whom he admired, and who promoted him to cardinal, and Francis, of whom he said Benedict was a “big supporter”.

On the day of Benedict’s funeral, Spain’s Cardinal Juan José Omella said, “Pope Francis was not being influenced by Benedict or his congregation”.

The archbishop of Burgos, Spain, Mario Ista Gavacegoscoa agreed, saying, “There were not two popes.” Benedict had returned to his monastery, and so “there was only one pope, Francis.”

But after Benedict’s death, the calculus in the Vatican has markedly changed.

“It would be difficult to have two emeritus popes,” a French bishop, Jean-Yves Riocreux, said on Thursday, adding that the big difference for Francis after Benedict’s death was that “he can now resign.”

While Francis has entertained the possibility of retiring, Vatican analysts say that if his health continues to deteriorate and he continues to enjoy the job of being pope, it is unlikely that he will be able to hand things over to a successor. Will run for someone who could undo his legacy, just as he has walked away from Benedict.

Indeed, Francis’s conservative critics are already fearing the worst.

“Looks like Francis declared year zero, goodbye to all that, etc,” said Rod Dreyer, a hard-right conservative who left the church but remains active in his politics. announced on Twitter on Thursday After which he assumed a minor household for Benedict by Francis. “Bad times are coming for faithful Orthodox Catholics.”

But some Vatican analysts believe Francis will no longer be the only force with a free hand. Frustrated conservatives and traditionalists, he says, will no longer be followed by Benedict, who at times provided cover for Francis by telling his own followers to cool it. Instead, Francis has already hammered his dear old Latins, with some predicting they will wage an even more open war against Francis.

Francis doesn’t seem too worried. He has mostly shrugged off his criticism, and in 2019, he responded to a question about a possible crackdown by hardline conservatives in the Catholic Church, saying, “I pray there is no schism, but I fear not. “

Mr O’Connell said, more than conservative opposition, there was a quest for a collegial consensus to bring the whole church forward on major changes, keeping Francis behind on key issues. “Their purpose is to preserve the unity of the Church,” Mr O’Connell said. “And that’s the barrier.”

Francis hopes to secure a consensus, or something close to it, at two major meetings of bishops in the coming two years. But in the Vatican, two years is plenty of time for something to go wrong and slow Francis down.

To the chagrin of his critics, Francis has demonstrated a political agility, media savvy, and an imperviousness to the scandals and crises that plagued Benedict during much of his eight-year papacy.

Benedict was often tripped by political missteps. He openly admitted that he was no administrator and preferred the books of a theologian to the platform of the most powerful clergyman in the world. He surrounded himself with intrigue-prone Italians in the Curia, the Roman bureaucracy that controlled the Church, and eventually resigned amid tumultuous Vatican scandals, including the theft of his documents by a butler.

In contrast, Francis relies on a few trusted clerics, often Jesuits like him, who operate outside the traditional Vatican power structure. He has shown an ability to bounce back from errors and has managed to keep the usual Vatican intrigue at bay with a mix of good staff and tough governance.

If tongues wag with Benedict, Francis’s heads have rolled.

When an embarrassing scandal broke in 2020 about the possible misuse of funds to buy an apartment building in London, Francis publicly abjured one of his top cardinals and stripped him of privileges, including voting in conclaves.

In a more serious crisis, when Francis unfairly sided with his bishops in Chile over sex abuse victims whom he accused of “disgrace”, he reversed himself, ordered an investigation and asked bishops in Chile to “Basically half-firing”, Joshua J. McElwee said.

“He has shown an incredible ability to change his mind and adapt to learning that he was wrong,” he said.

Or as John L. Allen Jr., editor of Crux, a news site specializing in coverage of the Vatican and the Catholic Church, puts it in more political terms, Francis and his team “could see a train wreck coming.” And try to outdo it in a way that Benedict and his team have never been able to.”

That crisis-management savvy, clear agenda and now fractured conservative opposition have put Francis in a position to make the changes his supporters so hunger for.

Alberto Fernandez, a priest in Madrid who traveled to Rome to attend Benedict’s funeral, said that “over time, it became normal” to see two popes at the Vatican. Now that one is at it again, he hopes Francis continues on the same path.

“Pope has been Francis for almost 10 years,” he said. “That was the change.”

Gaia Pianigiani And Emma Bubola Contributed reporting from Rome.



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