VATICAN CITY — Since the first day of his papacy nearly a decade ago, Pope Francis has had to navigate an unprecedented complication in the Roman Catholic Church: coexisting with his retired predecessor in the same Vatican gardens. Supporters of Francis studiously played down the two-pontiff anomaly, but it generated confusion, especially when conservative acolytes of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI sought to wrap their fervent opposition in their leader’s white robes.
Now, with the burial of Benedict on Thursday, Francis, never bashful about exercising his power, is for the first time unbound.
“Now, I’m sure he’ll take it over,” said Oswald Gracias, the archbishop of Mumbai, as he walked around St. Peter’s Square before Benedict’s funeral Mass.
Some liberal supporters of Francis, who has often balked in the face of advancing major overhauls, are raising expectations for a late-breaking season of change.
Many bishops and cardinals in the Vatican are convinced “he’s thinking ahead,” said Gerard O’Connell, the Vatican correspondent for America magazine. “What changes now is that the opposition will not have the rallying figure, manipulating Benedict. Francis has a very clear agenda.”
Mr. O’Connell, the author of “The Election of Pope Francis: An Inside Story of the Conclave That Changed History,” envisioned an immediate future of swifter personnel decisions and the placing of more lay Catholics in power. He said there was talk about a new document on morality, sexuality and contraception. He also predicted the revisiting of major issues.
Francis has already allowed debate on key, and previously taboo, topics like being more inclusive to gay people and giving women larger roles in the church. In 2021, he seemed poised to allow married men in far-flung areas like the Amazon to become priests. While an unexpected expression of opposition from Benedict, or those writing in his name, perhaps contributed to Francis pulling back, he left the door open.
Already absolute, Francis’ leadership in the church is increasingly fortified by a hierarchy in his image. By the end of the year, Francis will almost certainly pack the College of Cardinals with handpicked appointees. His chosen prelates will most likely then make up two-thirds of the body, the threshold necessary for electing the next pope.
That number could click even higher if he remains in power through the end of 2024, when the second of two major meetings of the world’s bishops he has convened will end. Those so-called Synods, deeply disparaged by Benedict’s wing, are the fulfillment of Francis’ vision to foster a consensus for big changes in the church.
While that all remains in the future, what seems certain is that Francis seems eager to put an end to grievances about the past. On Friday, a day after the burial of his predecessor, Francis seemed to try to quell the grumbling by Benedict’s loyalists, who had accused him of giving Benedict short shrift in his funeral homily and of having disappointed the pope emeritus repeatedly over the past decade, by quoting Benedict XVI’s own words about avoiding the petty and mundane and putting faith above all else.
In a remark that has been widely interpreted in the Vatican as a direct response to the complaints of Benedict’s closest collaborator, Archbishop Georg Gänswein — who has a book coming out — Francis said during the Mass, “Let us worship God, not ourselves; let us worship God and not the false idols that seduce by the allure of prestige or power, or the allure of false news.”
The new era also ended the strange business of church officials denying any awkwardness in the two-pope epoch.
Cardinal Gracias said that there was continuity between Benedict, whom he admired, and who had elevated him to Cardinal, and Francis, of whom he said Benedict was a “big supporter.”
“Pope Francis was not being influenced” by Benedict or his coterie, said Cardinal Juan José Omella of Spain on the day of Benedict’s funeral.
“There were not two popes,” agreed Mario Iceta Gavicagogeascoa, the archbishop of Burgos, Spain. Benedict had withdrawn in his monastery, and so “there was only one pope, Francis.”
But after Benedict’s death, the calculus in the Vatican has clearly changed.
“It would be difficult to have two emeritus popes,” a French bishop, Jean-Yves Riocreux, said on Thursday, adding that the major difference for Francis after Benedict’s death was “now he can resign.”
While Francis has entertained the prospect of retiring, Vatican analysts say that if his health holds out and he keeps enjoying the job of being pope, it is unlikely he would rush to hand things over to a successor who could undo his legacy, just as he has chipped away at Benedict’s.
Indeed, conservative critics of Francis are already fearing the worst.
“Seems that Francis declared Year Zero, goodbye to all that, etc.,” Rod Dreher, a hard-right traditionalist who left the church but remains active in its politics, declared Thursday on Twitter after what he considered a paltry homily to Benedict by Francis. “Bad times coming for faithful orthodox Catholics.”
But some Vatican analysts hold a countervailing view that Francis will not be the only force with a freer hand now. Frustrated conservatives and traditionalists, they say, will no longer feel chastened by Benedict, who at times provided cover to Francis by telling his own followers to cool it. Instead, with Francis having already brought down the hammer on their beloved Old Latin Masses, some predict they will wage an even more open war against Francis.
Francis does not seem too worried. He has mostly shrugged off their critiques, and in 2019, he responded to a question about a potential breaking off by arch conservatives in the Catholic church by saying, “I pray there are no schisms, but I’m not scared.”
More than conservative opposition, what has held Francis back on major issues, Mr. O’Connell said, was the search for a collegial consensus to bring the whole church forward on the major changes. “His aim is to keep the unity of the church,” Mr. O’Connell said. “And that is the constraint.”
Francis hopes to secure that consensus, or something close to it, over two major meetings of bishops in the coming two years. But in the Vatican, two years is plenty of time for something to go wrong and slow Francis down.
To the chagrin of his critics, Francis has demonstrated a political agility, media savvy and seeming imperviousness to the scandals and crises that so hobbled Benedict during his eight-year papacy.
Benedict frequently stumbled with political missteps. He openly acknowledged he was no administrator and seemed to prefer the books of a theologian to the platform of the globe’s most powerful pastor. He surrounded himself with intrigue-prone Italians in the Curia, the Roman bureaucracy that governs the church, and ultimately resigned amid tawdry Vatican scandals, including the theft of his documents by a butler.
By contrast, Francis relies on a few trusted clerics, often Jesuits like him, who operate outside the traditional Vatican power structure. He has shown an ability to bounce back from errors and has managed to keep the usual Vatican intrigue at bay with a mix of good hires and draconian governance.
If with Benedict tongues wagged, with Francis heads have rolled.
When an embarrassing scandal erupted in 2020 about the possible misuse of funds to buy an apartment building in London, Francis publicly humiliated one of his top cardinals and stripped him of his privileges, including voting in the conclave.
And on a more substantive crisis, when Francis wrongly sided with his bishops in Chile over sex abuse victims, whom he accused of “calumny,” he reversed himself, ordered an investigation and “wound up firing basically half” of the bishops in Chile, said Joshua J. McElwee, an editor at The National Catholic Reporter and a co-editor of “A Pope Francis Lexicon,” a collection of essays about the pope.
“He’s shown an incredible ability to change his mind and to adapt to learning that he was wrong,” he said.
Or as John L. Allen Jr., the editor of Crux, a news site specializing in coverage of the Vatican and the Catholic Church, put it, in more political terms, Francis and his team “can see a train wreck coming and try to get out ahead of it in a way that Benedict and his team was never able to do.”
That crisis-management savvy, clear agenda and now fragmented conservative opposition has put Francis in a position to make the changes his supporters have so hungered for.
Alberto Fernandez, a priest in Madrid who had traveled to Rome to attend Benedict’s funeral, said that “with time, it became usual” to see two popes in the Vatican. Now that there is one again, he expects Francis to stay on the same path.
“The pope has been Francis for almost 10 years,” he said. “That was the change.”
Gaia Pianigiani and Emma Bubola contributed reporting from Rome.