CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy — Pope Francis traveled Saturday to this hill town south of Rome to have lunch with his "brother" and predecessor Benedict XVI, a historic and potentially problematic melding of the papacies that has never before confronted the Catholic Church.
The two men dressed in white embraced warmly on the helipad in the gardens of Castel Gandolfo, where Benedict has been living since he stepped down Feb. 28 and became the first pope to resign in 600 years.
In a series of gestures that ensued, Benedict made clear that he considered Francis to be pope while Francis made clear he considered his predecessor to be very much a revered brother and equal. They clasped hands repeatedly, showing one another the deference owed a pope in ways that surely turned Vatican protocol upside down.
Traveling from the helipad to the palazzo, Francis sat on the right-hand side of the car, the traditional place of the pope, while Benedict sat on the left. When they entered the chapel inside the palazzo to pray, Benedict tried to direct Francis to the papal kneeler at the front of the chapel, but Francis refused.
"No, we are brothers," Francis told Benedict, according to the Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi. He said Francis wanted to pray together with Benedict, so the two used a different kneeler in the pews and prayed side-by-side.
Francis also brought a gift to Benedict, an icon of the Madonna, and told him that it's known as the "Madonna of Humility."
"I thought of you," Francis told Benedict. "You gave us so many signs of humility and gentleness in your pontificate." Benedict replied: "Grazie, grazie."
Benedict wore the simple white cassock of the papacy, with a quilted white jacket over it to guard against the chill, but minus the sash and cape worn by Francis. Walking with a cane, the 85-year-old Benedict looked frail compared to the robust 76-year-old Argentine.
Outside the villa, the main piazza of Castel Gandolfo was packed with well-wishers bearing photos of both popes and chanting "Francesco! Francesco!" But the Vatican made clear they probably wouldn't see anything.
The Vatican downplayed the remarkable reunion in keeping with Benedict's desire to remain "hidden from the world" and not interfere with his successor's papacy. There was no live coverage by Vatican television, and only a short video and still photos were released after the fact.
The Vatican spokesman said the two spoke privately for 40-45 minutes, followed by lunch with the two papal secretaries, but no details were released.
All of which led to enormous speculation about what these two popes might have said to one another after making history together: Benedict's surprise resignation paved the way for the first pope from Latin America, the first Jesuit, and the first to call himself Francis after the 13th century friar who devoted himself to the poor, nature and working for peace.