A couple of days ago Benedict XVI, Bishop Emeritus of Rome, returned to the Vatican. His dower house, Mater Ecclesiae, has been made ready for him, and Pope Francis toddled down from the big house to welcome him. Some have suggested that it is awkward for Pope Francis to have his predecessor living in the garden. If so, he hides it supremely well.
Perhaps I am reading too much into the angle of the photo, but Benedict seems much gaunter in the face, and slimmer in the body. Age seems suddenly to have hit him. Is he well? If not, is this possibly one small reason why no live coverage of his return was allowed by the Vatican? It adds an ominous undertone to a lovely picture.
Another picture has emerged from the day. It shows Pope Francis and Benedict at prayer in the dower house chapel shortly after Benedict’s arrival.
After struggling still to absorb the remarkable sight of two live popes at prayer together, my eye wandered around the chapel. It’s lovely.
The chapel is utterly simple and un-ostentatious (it is not only Pope Francis who can be so, though he certainly is). Yet, for all its simplicity, it is utterly Catholic. To my poorly trained eye, it looks as one might have hoped for a chapel to look in the wake of Vatican II’s document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctun Concilium. The focus is exclusively on the altar, the place of the Sacrifice, symbol of the Cross and of Christ himself. It is a symbolism boldly affirmed by the imposing yet elegant crucifix above the altar. The altar faces East, the direction of the rising sun and the Returning Son, the ancient and now so tragically neglected direction of Christian prayer and worship. The altar is dressed simply but worthily. Christ abides in the small tabernacle directly behind the altar. The big six are there too, appropriately sized. The Paschal Candle is the only other object to compete with the altar for attention. However, one might reasonably suspect there is an image or statue of our Lady in there as well. St Joseph too? The Sacred Heart? St Benedict?! Hopefully we will be allowed a few more glimpses into the dower chapel.
It strikes me that this chapel is undoubtedly fitted out according to Benedict’s desires, shows Benedict’s commitment to the liturgical vision of Vatican II. That is not quite the same as a commitment to the liturgy as it is most often celebrated around the world. Cloistered with the Cross though he now is, Benedict still witnesses to the liturgy the Church treasures and deserves, even if only God and the angels might see it day by day.
Still, now we too have had a brief and privileged glimpse. It is enough, let us pray, to remind the Church of Benedict’s parting call to rediscover the “true Council”. Just as the Council’s decrees began with the liturgy, so may the Church look again to the Council’s liturgical reforms as they actually decreed them, and confirm whether it is these reforms we were given. If so, let us rejoice. If not, let us waste no time in reclaiming them.
May the Lord protect and defend Pope Francis and Benedict; may they both bear much fruit to God’s glory and our good.