“He didn’t have any fear of my illness. He embraced me without speaking… I quivered. I felt a great warmth… I felt like I was in paradise.”—Vinicio Riva, 53, who suffers from disfiguring boils on the skin, explaining how he felt as Pope Francis hugged him during a papal audience in Rome on November 6
“I am an old man, a monk dedicated to prayer, and nothing more.”—Pope Emeritus Benedict, speaking to Eastern-rite Patriarchs of the Middle East visiting him November 23, after they invited him to visit the region.
This Christmas is the first “Christmas of Two Popes” in the history of the Church. And what we are seeing this Christmas is a rich, respectful relationship between two profoundly spiritual men that is bearing remarkable fruit for the Church and the world in this season when we celebrate the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago.
Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict have met a number of times since their first meeting following the Conclave on March 23. Pope Francis has confided to friends that he considers Benedict a “wise elder” whose counsel he appreciates and learns from. Francis’ first encyclical, Lumen fidei (“The Light of Faith,” June 29) was largely a text prepared by Benedict before his resignation.
In the nine months since Francis’ election, we have observed Francis in action, preaching daily in the chapel of the residence house where he lives, the Domus Santa Marta; kissing babies; embracing the sick; hugging people suffering from various diseases.
Not so much has been heard about Benedict, living, as he said he would, “hidden from the world” in the Mater Ecclesiae (“Mother of the Church”) convent on a hill in the Vatican Gardens behind St. Peter’s Basilica.
On November 23, Benedict received a group of Eastern-rite Patriarchs in Rome to participate in the closing of the “Year of Faith.” One of the Patriarchs, His Beatitude Louis Raphael Sako, Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans, asked Benedict for a special blessing and prayer for Iraq, which is still suffering from sectarian violence.
“I pray each day for Iraq and Syria and the rest of the Middle East,” Benedict said.
“Now you are retired, so you would have no problem visiting us in Iraq,” Sako said.
“I am an old man, a monk dedicated to prayer, and nothing more,” Benedict answered.
But “hidden from the world” is not hidden from God. And the prayers of the old Pope, rising ceaselessly from the hill overlooking the Vatican, may be more effective in healing the wounds and preserving the peace of the Church, and of the world, than we can know.
Pope Francis is touching consciences and hearts around the world with his acts of charity. Vinicio Riva, the 53-year-old Italian man from Vincenza, Italy, who has suffered from boils on his face and body since he was 15, is perhaps the most dramatic sign of Pope Francis’ mission.
Accustomed to the hostile stares of strangers, Riva was shocked when Pope Francis hugged him without hesitation. After the Pope’s hug, he told the Corriere della Sera, his heart was bursting. “I felt like I was in paradise,” he said.
People are usually afraid to come close to the hundreds of boils that cover Riva’s body, fearing that his very presence could make them sick. He thought the Pope would speak to his aunt, who was with him, and that he would only get a cursory glance. But instead, Francis headed straight towards Riva, wrapped his arms around the man’s head and pulled him in for a tight embrace. It was like nothing Riva had ever experienced before.
So, on this Christmas, the message of Pope Francis is to love and hug close all those who are dear to you, and also those who have been forgotten, and no longer even expect to be embraced.
And on this Christmas, the message of Pope Emeritus Benedict is to hold up all in prayer, which is a spiritual embrace — especially those in need of that prayer.