As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI prepares to move back into the Vatican on Thursday, the author of a new book on Pope Francis tells Newsmax TV there is little chance Benedict will ever become a “lightning rod” for opposition to his successor’s policies.
“Francis stands, as we have seen in the nearly two months of his pontificate, very much in continuity with the teachings of both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict the XVI in a host of areas,” explained Dr. Matthew Bunson, senior correspondent for Our Sunday Visitor and author of the new book, “Pope Francis,” in an exclusive interview on Wednesday.
Bunson said that Benedict has made it clear that he intends to live out his days with a life of “prayerful meditation — one of seclusion from the world,” according to the author of more than 45 books.
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The 86-year-old emeritus Pontiff is set to move into his new retirement home on the ground floor of the monastery inside the Vatican gardens.
He was to be joined by a small staff after his return from the papal residence in Castel Gandolfo, where he had been living since he resigned on Feb. 28.
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“The last person that would want to interfere or to become a lightning rod in this new pontificate would be the Pope Emeritus, the Bishop of Rome Emeritus — and that's Pope Benedict XVI,” Bunson said.
“He's made that very clear. On the day that he left the Vatican, on February 28th, in one of the last public statements that he made to the members of the College of Cardinals who were preparing to elect his successor, he said, very forcefully, that he pledged there and then his fidelity and his obedience to the new Pope.”
Some church scholars, however, have expressed concern that in the event Francis undoes some of Benedict's policies while he is still alive, the former Pope could become a lightning rod for opponents and polarize the church.
“There may be those who complain about styles that are different, approaches that are different, but all they have to do is look at the retired pope, Pope Emeritus, to understand where they need to go,” observed Bunson. “If they're truly faithful to Benedict, then they have to be obedient and faithful to Francis as well.”
Having written the first English-language biography of the popular new head of the Catholic Church, Bunson said it is very likely Francis will try to broker a peace deal in the Middle East.
Earlier this week, Israeli President Shimon Peres invited the Pope to visit Israel, while the Pontiff himself already made an appeal for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians in his Easter address.
“The Holy See has been for a very long time — and remains very much a neutral arbiter — somebody that everyone in conflict can turn to in crises, to bring about a fair negotiation,” Bunson explained. “Pope Francis will carry that forward. He has already established himself in the model of St. Francis of Assisi as somebody who wants peace, who brings that humility of service and many people will be turning to him to assist in brokering disagreements and conflicts, again, in exactly the same way that the Popes of the modern era have stood as figures of peace.”
Both of Francis' two immediate predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II, visited the Holy Land, including Palestinian territories, in 2000 and 2009 respectively.
Francis has also inherited a church struggling to move past the sexual abuse crisis that has led a number of Catholics to openly question their faith, as well as the internal scandals that have dogged the Vatican in recent years.
Pope Francis has already said he wants the Catholic Church to "act decisively" to root out sexual abuse of children by priests, and Bunson views that as an important gesture.
“It was an announcement to the church that there's no going back from the reforms of Pope Benedict XVI,” he explained. “Pope Francis, when he was still Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was very clear in his support of Pope Benedict's zero tolerance policy toward abusers, toward making sure the seminaries have proper formation programs, so as Pope he's made absolutely clear that he has no intention of allowing the church to backtrack on any of that.”
Having conducted research for his book in five languages, Bunson said he was most impressed with the collection of Pope Francis’ homilies that were at times fiery and pastoral.
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“Cardinal Bergoglio was fierce in defending things like human dignity and his defense of marriage, in his speaking out for the poor and the defenseless, and also of course the corruption of the times,” said Bunson, drawing a comparison with early church fathers. “We see that in St. Augustine. We see that in St. John Chrysostom, for example . . . So that was one of the great surprises and in a way a great pleasure to read his homilies.”
But Bunson does not anticipate that Francis will break new ground on social issues such as women priests, or gay marriage.
“Pope Francis is going to surprise a lot of people with the degree to which he's willing to defend things like family life, marriage, and of course he's very outspoken in the area of abortion,” he explained. “I don't anticipate any changes along those lines.”
Bunson added that Francis will likely make his mark in other ways, such as his public acts of humility and internal reforms.
“We're already seeing his determination to bring about reform,” he said. “There's a central government of the church called the Roman Curia and that's going to have significant impact on the church in the coming years in making the central government much more responsive to the needs of the Pope in order to make him more effective as a minister, as a servant to the whole church.”
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this article.
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