When Pope Benedict XVI resigned in 2013, many wondered what role a retired pope might have in the Church. After the election of Pope Francis, many continued to wonder whether the presence of a retired pope would be a threat in any way to the authority of the new one.

Given those concerns, the low-profile role chosen by the pope emeritus has been quite reassuring. Similarly, Francis’ acceptance of his predecessor’s draft of his own first encyclical letter, Lumen Fidei, in June 2013, was more than a gracious gesture of civility.

Despite initial apprehensions, these developments can be seen as the first steps toward a Spirit-led unfolding of a new-style papacy for the Third Millennium.

Historically, such unfolding of the nature and exercise of the papacy has not been unusual in Church life. It was evident, though in convoluted ways, in resolving the knotty wrangle of three claimants to the papal tiara 600 years ago: Gregory XII, Benedict XIII and self-claiming John XXIII. 2017 will mark the 6th centenary of the election of Pope Martin V to replace these three claimants.

That centennial may help us further reflect on the presence of two popes today, though in far more salutary circumstances.

The Spirit manifests itself in surprise ways, and the current role of Archbishop Georg Gänswein, who doubles both as prefect of Pope Francis’ Pontifical Household and as the personal secretary of emeritus Pope Benedict, may be one such manifestation.

In a rather revealing speech at a May 20 book launch in Rome, Gänswein reflected on what he saw as a new development of the Petrine ministry. Reportedly, he commented there on Pope Benedict’s resignation and his relations with Pope Francis.

“Before and after his resignation, Pope Benedict has viewed his task as participation in the papal ministry,” Gänswein said. News media quoted him as saying that although Benedict had left the papal throne, he had not abandoned the ministry.

Instead, he has “built a personal office with a collegial and synodal dimension, almost a communal ministry,” said the emeritus pope’s secretary.

Gänswein said that since Francis’ election, there are “not two popes but de facto an expanded ministry, with an active member and a contemplative member.”

If, as yet, there has been no comment from the usually outspoken Pope Francis or his colleagues, they must be in deep contemplation of the implications of the thoughts articulated by Pope Benedict’s longtime close collaborator.

For sure, Gänswein’s analysis of an expanded papacy must be food for thought for Francis, who has repeatedly shown himself open to rethinking various aspects of the office. Was this pope of surprises, elected in 2013 after being reportedly bypassed in 2005, perhaps mulling such matters during his May 29 address to deacons from around the globe?

Those who serve must be prepared for God’s surprises, he told them.

After all, it was not too long ago that Pope Francis was heard thinking aloud about his own papacy as a limited-term affair. Hence, some of today’s Catholics may live to see three popes at once, though far different from the embarrassing scenario 600 years ago of three contending claimants!

Whether there be two, three or four popes, the Church’s concern would be more about papal roles in the Ganswein-articulated concept of an expanded ministry.

For instance, even now, there’s obviously some reciprocity between the reflective theologizing ministry of Benedict, the emeritus pope, and the actively pastoral ministry of Francis, the reigning pope. The dynamics of such a partnership may provide for further expansion of a communal papal ministry.

If so, is it possible that the multiple-pope scenario could actually open the doors of the Church to other, deeper ways of democratizing decision-making and leadership?

 For instance, could such an expanded collegial dimension of the papacy, combining Petrine and Pauline ministries, gradually grow toward sharing authority and service with other layers of the Church, including the laity?

Could the already emerging synodal dimension of the papacy open new leadership roles of effective authority to bishops’ synods and conferences on a more permanent basis?

Could such inclusive moves help deconstruct other structures, and foster growth as a more open, inclusive, and ecumenical Church?

Such growth may help the papacy return to Spirit-led democratic procedures evidenced in the election of Mathias as the Twelfth Apostle – the first bishop-elect of the newborn Church.

(Veteran Asian Church journalist Hector Welgampola from Sri Lanka retired as the Executive Editor of Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) in 2000. Before he joined UCAN in 1989, Hector headed editorial teams of newspapers in Sri Lanka. Since retiring Hector has lived in Australia with his wife, Rita. He authored the resource book Asian Church Glossary and Stylebook. He can be contacted at welgampo@gmail.com)