CASTEL GANDOLFO, — The two men in white embraced and showed one another the deference owed a pope in ways that surely turned Vatican protocol upside down Saturday, with 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.

Pope Francis traveled from the Vatican to this town south of Rome to have lunch with his predecessor, Benedict XVI, an historic and potentially problematic melding of the papacies that has never before confronted the church.

In a season of extraordinary moments, starting with Benedict’s resignation and climaxing with the election of the first Latin American pope, Saturday’s encounter provided perhaps the most enduring images of this papal transition as popes present and past embraced, prayed and ate together.

“It was a moment of great communion in the church,” said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi. “The spiritual union of these two people is truly a great gift and a promise of serenity for the church.”

Series of gestures

Benedict, 85, has been living at the papal retreat in Castel Gandolfo since he stepped down Feb. 28 and became the first pope to resign in 600 years. From the moment he was elected, Francis, 76, made clear that he would visit Benedict, refusing in a way to let him remain “hidden from the world” as he had intended.

Wearing a white quilted jacket over his white cassock to guard against the spring chill, Benedict greeted Francis on the helipad of the Castel Gandolfo gardens as soon as the papal helicopter landed. They embraced and clasped hands.

And in a series of gestures that followed, 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.

Traveling from the helipad to the palazzo, Benedict gave Francis the seat 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 in the front, but Francis refused.

Taking Benedict’s hands and drawing him near, Francis said, “No, we are brothers,” Lombardi said. The two used a longer kneeler in the pews and prayed side-by-side, the papal kneeler facing the altar left vacant.

Historic reunion

It was a gesture that, 10 days into Francis’ papacy, is becoming routine — a shunning of the trappings of the papacy in favor of a collegial and simple style that harks back to his Jesuit roots and ministry in the slums of Buenos Aires.

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, at the many marvelous examples of humility and gentleness that you gave us during your pontificate.”

Benedict replied: “Grazie, grazie.”

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 crowd soon dissipated after Francis’ helicopter left 2.5 hours later, without either pope coming to the balcony as many had hoped

The Vatican downplayed the remarkable reunion in keeping with Benedict’s desire to stay out of the spotlight so as not to 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 meeting. No details of the pair’s private talks or lunch were released.

All of which led to enormous speculation about what these two men in white might have said to one another.

That the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was second only to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the 2005 conclave that elected Ratzinger pope — considered then to be the “anti-Ratzinger” candidate — only added to the popular imagination about what two men with such radically different styles, backgrounds and priorities might have chatted about over lunch.

Management changes

Perhaps they discussed the big issues facing the church — the rise of secularism in the world, the drop in priestly vocations in Europe, the competition that the Catholic Church faces in Latin America and Africa from evangelical Pentecostal movements.

They also might have discussed more pressing issues about Francis’ new job — Benedict left a host of unfinished business on Francis’ plate, including the outcome of a top-secret investigation into the leaks of papal documents last year that exposed corruption and mismanagement in the Vatican administration.

Francis might have wanted to sound Benedict out on his ideas for management changes in the Holy See administration, a priority given the dysfunctional government he has inherited.

Avoid confustion

Benedict’s resignation, and his choices about his future, have raised the not-insignificant question of how the Catholic Church will deal with the novel situation of having one reigning and one retired pope living side-by-side.

Before Benedict announced his decision to be known as “emeritus pope” and “Your Holiness,” one of the Vatican’s leading canon lawyers, the Jesuit Rev. Gianfranco Ghirlanda, wrote an article suggesting that such a title would be inappropriate for Benedict, since in renouncing the papacy he had “lost all the power of primacy” conferred on him by his election.

The Vatican had originally said Benedict would likely be known as “emeritus bishop of Rome” precisely to avoid confusion with the new pope.

But Benedict went ahead with the title and chose to keep wearing the white cassock of the papacy, albeit without the sash and cape worn by Francis, leading to questions about his own influence on the future pontiff and whether Catholics more favorable to his traditional style might try to undermine his successor’s authority and agenda by keeping their allegiance to the former pope.

Warm exchange

Clearly aware of that potential, Benedict in his last meeting with his cardinals on Feb. 28 pledged his “unconditional reverence and obedience” to the then-unknown future pope.

Lombardi said he understood Benedict had repeated that pledge of obedience to Francis Saturday.

Asked how the popes addressed one another, Lombardi demurred, saying he didn’t think they addressed one another as “Your Holiness” or “Pope,” saying the exchange was too familiar and warm for such titles.