The present and former Popes met, in a moment without precedent, on March 23.

And the words which remain are the ones spoken by Pope Francis to Benedict: “We are brothers.”

As Nicole Winfield put it in her comprehensive Associated Press dispatch: “The two men in white embraced and showed one another the deference owed a Pope in ways that surely turned Vatican protocol upside down: A reigning Pope telling a retired one, ‘We are brothers,’ and insisting that they pray side-by-side during a date to discuss the future of the Catholic Church.”

In the same report, she noted: “Francis also brought a gift for Benedict, an icon of the Madonna. ‘They told me it’s the Madonna of Humility,’ Francis told Benedict. ‘Let me say one thing: When they told me that, I immediately thought of you, of the many marvelous examples of humility and gentleness that you gave us during your pontificate.’ Benedict replied: ‘Grazie, grazie.’”

But who were the “they” who told Francis that the icon was the Madonna of Humility?

“They” were… the people who gave the icon to him. But who were those people?

They were representatives of the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill, who sent the icon to Pope Francis as a gift, and who had handed it to Francis three days before, on March 20.

Pope Francis presented to Emeritus Pope Benedict the icon which he had received from Metropolitan Hilarion on behalf of Patriarch Kirill after that private audience.

So at the moment Pope Francis and Emeritus Pope Benedict first met, there was a certain “Russian connection,” and thus an “Orthodox connection” present, joining them: an image of the Virgin Mary, the Madonna of Humility, brought from Russia and given to Pope Francis in Rome on March 20, an image which immediately struck Pope Francis when he received it as reminding him of Benedict, an image which he decided to bring with him to give to Emeritus Pope Benedict, on the unprecedented occasion of their first meeting.

At the same time, Pope Francis, during the first days of his pontificate, twice asked the Cardinal Archbishop of Lisbon, Portugal, the Patriarch of Lisbon, Jose da Cruz Policarpo, if he would consecrate Francis’ papacy to Our Lady of Fatima. And Policarpo said in April that he would carry out that prayer of consecration on May 13 in Fatima.

So there is a “Marian” element present in the first weeks of the pontificate, an element which has been relatively little discussed in the general press. There seems to be in this a mysterious design, something transcending our ordinary understanding of cause and effect, a design for Christians to return to greater communion, East and West, Greek and Latin, Orthodox and Catholic, with one of the great “hinge points” being Russia.

The presence of the Madonna of Humility at the first meeting of Francis and Benedict seems to highlight the fact that it was humility that brought these two men together, one simple and humble, the other also simple and humble, one dedicated to a life of thought, to theology, the other dedicated to a life of action, to pastoral care of the poor. And the way to proceed forward toward greater Christian unity is this same way, the way of Mary, the way of humility.

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