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Pope Francis, Benedict XVI pray together

Pope Francis (left) and his predecessor, Pope Emeritus

Pope Francis (left) and his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, meet at the helicopter pad of the papal summer residence, Castel Gandolfo near Rome, Italy. Historically there is no known record of a pope and former pope meeting, as a new pontiff is only elected on the death his predecessor. (March 23, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy -- Pope Francis and retired pope Benedict XVI prayed and knelt together Saturday in what a Vatican spokesman depicted as a profound moment of communion between the old and new leaders of the Roman Catholic Church.

Declining Benedict's gestures of deference to his successor, Francis insisted that they share the same pew near the altar during the historical meeting inside a private chapel at Castel Gandolfo, the lake-view summer papal residence outside Rome.

"The pope emeritus offered Pope Francis the place of honor as they prayed before lunch," said Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi, referring to the kneeler reserved for the pope. "But Pope Francis declined and said, 'We are brothers,' " Lombardi said.

Pope Francis presented Benedict with an icon of the Virgin of Humility. "When I saw it I thought of you," said Francis, "because you have given us so many examples of humility," reported Lombardi.

Both were clad in white cassocks, but Benedict no longer wore the papal sash and cape.

Francis landed at the Castel Gandolfo heliport around 12:15 p.m. aboard a white helicopter, and Benedict was waiting for him on the runway. They hugged in a warm embrace.

Accompanied by their personal secretaries, they got into the same car and headed for the chapel. Francis rode on the right side, which Vatican protocol reserves only for popes, and Benedict on the left.

The pope emeritus reaffirmed his reverence to his successor, while Francis expressed his gratitude.

"I think it's a gesture of courtesy and at the same time a gesture of affection," said Marco Politi, Vatican journalist and author of the book, "Joseph Ratzinger: Crisis of a Papacy." "Many cardinals criticized him behind the scenes because he resigned, but Pope Francis recognizes his greatness," he said.

After praying in the chapel, they met behind closed doors for 45 minutes. Crowds of faithful awaited beneath a window of the cream-colored 17th century palace, but never got a glimpse of the popes.

Benedict was the first pope to resign in 600 years, citing ailing health and old age. Then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the first Jesuit and Latin American to become pope, has inherited a church in crisis.

Amid sex-abuse scandals, financial mismanagement and a dwindling number of faithful, Francis received a mandate for reform. Since then, his gestures of humility and his expressed desire of a "poor church for the poor" have fed anticipation of a shake-up in the Vatican.

"I think he is already going in the right direction," said Sergio Rubin, the official biographer of Pope Francis. "That breath of fresh air is running through his pontificate, which is a result of his style," he said. "He's a reformer, a pope with a very open mind."

Everyone is waiting to see whom Francis will appoint as his new secretary of state, the cardinal prime minister of Vatican City. Last year, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone -- the acting secretary of state -- and members of the Roman Curia loyal to him were tarred by the Vatileaks scandal.

Confidential letters written directly to the pope by high-ranking Vatican employees published in the Italian press hinted at corruption, bribery and money-laundering. They also described Bertone's cronyism and his distaste for Benedict's mandate to bring transparency to the Vatican bank.

Benedict ordered an investigation into the accusations. Now, a 600-page report sits on Francis' desk.

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