Pope Benedict: Francis’ Secret Weapon

History was made again on the weekend when two popes appeared together at Pope Francis’ first consistory. With the first Pope from the Americas creating an unprecedented number of cardinals hailing from the developing world, we are seeing the continued shift in the Catholic Church away from the old world and towards the new world.

Pope Benedict’s presence at the consistory was like an anchor for the barque of Peter in the sometimes, seemingly stormy sea of Francis’ pontificate. Was Benedict asked to be there for this very purpose? For any pope a consistory is an indicator of who he is and where he intends to lead the church. The choice of cardinals and their priorities indicates the pope’s priorities. Francis’ clear shift to cardinals from the developing world continues his focus on the young, poor, developing nations. This is where Catholicism (indeed Christianity’s) future lies.

John Allen’s The Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church lays it all out very plainly. The church of the future is young, poor, vital and real. Pope Francis represents this church while Benedict represents the old church–the church of European civilization, Greco-Roman roots and the 2000 year history of the church’s foundations. Therefore Benedict’s presence at the consistory at the weekend is perhaps the strongest and most symbolic statement yet of the continuity between the two popes and the vital new direction of Catholicism in the world.

Benedict’s presence like an anchor should be reassuring to those traditionalists who are wary of Francis. Those who are nervous about his freewheeling style, his open approach to “enemies” of the church and his off the cuff remarks must stop and learn more about this pope who comes from outside the developed world and outside the liturgical, cultural and theological battles to which we have become accustomed. In many of those battles: between traditionalists and progressives we have reached a stalemate, and the emphasis is on ‘stale’. The arguments have become old. We are chasing our tales. Two groups exist in our church with two very different perspectives.

Pope Francis presents a new way and a new approach from outside our comfort zone and outside our expected perceptions. By God’s surprising providence, Pope Benedict remains on the scene as the sign of continuity and as an anchor to steady the course. At the consistory on the weekend, although frail, he looked stronger and happier than he did in the last days of his papacy when everyone believed him when he said he simply did not have the strength to go on.

I believe he has recovered his strength, and that we will see him emerging in the role I predicted a year ago–the active role of Pope Emeritus–supporting his successor in fraternal friendship and prayer, and if it as we suspect–increasingly there in the background to assist Pope Francis in his own vital mission in the Vatican and in the world, for Pope Francis’ role as “reformer” is not simply to go through the Vatican as a new President or CEO might and tighten things up and clean up the act.

His job is much bigger than that. He must lead the church in her task of the New Evangelization, and to do that he will need all the help he can get. I believe the quiet German theologian hidden in a monastery in the Vatican gardens is his secret weapon.