The new Pope, who chose his name after the “little poor man” of Assisi, St. Francis, and who said in March shortly after his election that he longed for a “poor Church, for the poor” is already writing his first encyclical, and it will be on poverty.
It will draw its inspiration from the words “Blessed are the poor” in the Beatitudes, the words spoken by Christ in his Sermon on the Mount and reported in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
However, prior to this encyclical, it appears that Francis may publish another encyclical, on faith — an encyclical that Pope Benedict was working on last year, prior to his stepping down from the papacy on February 28.
But is the former Pope actually still helping to write the encyclical on faith, as he lives the life of a monk in silence and prayer in a convent inside the Vatican Gardens? According to an Italian bishop who met with Pope Francis in mid-May, yes. But, according to an official Vatican statement, no.
“Benedict XVI is finishing writing the encyclical on faith which will be signed by Pope Francis,” Bishop Luigi Martella of the Molfetta-Ruvo-Giovinazzo-Terlizzi diocese in southern Italy wrote May 23 on his diocesan website, in words that were quickly picked up by the Italian press. “Following this, he himself will prepare his first encyclical on the poor: Beati pauperes.” Beati pauperes is Latin for “Blessed are the poor.”
Martella added that Pope Francis’ encyclical will be about poverty “understood not in an ideological and political sense, but in the sense of the Gospel.”
The Italian bishop then said that he learned of these developments from Pope Francis himself earlier this month, while meeting with him — the Italian bishops from the region of Puglia travelled to Rome for their ad limina meeting with the Roman Pontiff from May 13 to 16.
This is how Bishop Martella described the meeting.
Pope Francis “spoke to us about Benedict XVI with such tenderness: ‘When I met him for the first time in Castelgandolfo [on March 23],’ he said, ‘I noticed that he had a very lucid memory, even though physically challenged. Now he is clearly better.’”
The bishop continued: “In the end, he [Pope Francis] wished to exchange a confidence, almost a revelation: Benedict XVI is finishing off the encyclical on faith that will be signed by Pope Francis. Then, he will himself prepare his first encyclical on the poor: Beati pauperes! [Note: “Blessed are the poor,” seemingly implying that those words could be the name of this second encyclical letter.] Poverty, he [Pope Francis] made clear, understood not in an ideological and political sense, but in an evangelical sense.”
Now, it would not be a surprise for a new Pope to complete a predecessor’s “work in progress,” and it is well known that Pope Benedict was in fact working on an encyclical on faith last year before his resignation, an encyclical which was expected to be published in the first half of this year.
But it raised eyebrows when Bishop Martella said that Pope Emeritus Benedict was even now “finishing off” the draft of the encyclical on faith. And, in fact, an official denial was soon issued by the Vatican.
“I can confirm that the plan for an encyclical on faith, begun by Benedict XVI, has been taken up by the new Pope,” Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said in a May 24 email response to questions. He said it would “be premature” to guess when the encyclical would be completed. But, still responding to questions, Father Lombardi added, “I can absolutely deny that Benedict XVI is working on the planned encyclical.”
It could be that Pope Emeritus Benedict is handing over to the new Pope all of the materials that he had gathered in the process of drafting the encyclical on faith, and in this sense is contributing to the “finishing off” of the encyclical, while not actually “working” on it or writing it.
In December, Father Lombardi had said Pope Benedict’s encyclical on faith would be released in the first half of 2013. The encyclical would complete a trilogy on the three “theological virtues,” following Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love,” 2005) on charity, and Spe Salvi (“Saved by Hope,” 2007) on hope.
Francis’ supposed decision to write an encyclical on poverty could be seen as in keeping with the fact that he is the first Pope to take the name Francis in the 800 years since the death of the great Italian saint who renounced worldly wealth, wore a simple brown tunic with a rope for a belt, and walked either barefoot or in sandals.
Likewise, in recent weeks the new Pope has several times issued sharp critiques of the world’s present economic system, telling the Pontifical Council for Migrants in May that “we live in a world where money commands” and “in a culture where money worship reigns.”
Should Pope Francis promulgate Benedict’s faith encyclical, it would not be the first time that one Pope has signed off on the work of another. It is reported that Deus Caritas Est, Benedict’s first encyclical, was based on unfinished writings of John Paul II.
In October, a high-ranking curial official told “Vatican Insider” that the text on faith, though then unfinished, was “beautiful,” adding that “Benedict XVI manages to express even the most complex and very deep truths using simple language which has a widespread reach that goes beyond all imagination.”
In his post on his diocesan website, Bishop Martella discussed the general topics touched on at the ad limina visit. He called Pope Francis an “extraordinary man” of “disarming simplicity.”
During these audiences with the Pope, bishops relate to the Roman Bishop the situation in their dioceses.
Bishop Martella says he stressed to Pope Francis the goodness of the people of Molfetta, and that the area is “a land of welcome and of immigration.”
“I spontaneously told him: ‘Your Holiness, visit Molfetta, we would be very happy,’” Bishop Martella wrote. “In response I got a beautiful smile, and I realized that the request was premature.”
What, then, do we know for sure? We know that two encyclicals, one on faith, one on poverty, are “in the works,” and we know that the draft of Pope Emeritus Benedict for the encyclical on faith is being treated with great respect and appreciation by Pope Francis. But we also know that the former Pope will not now be the author of the encyclical on faith, but rather a key contributor of elements which are going to be taken up by Pope Francis himself. And that this suggests a continuity in the work and mission of the two Popes, so different in style, but so similar in the burdens and duties they share.