The Vatican

Giorgio Napolitano. His relationship with Benedict XVI and Francis 

Although he was not a believer, Giorgio Napolitano always respected the pontiffs of the Catholic Church. He maintained a cordial relationship with Benedict XVI and Francis.

Antonino Piccione-September 27, 2023-Reading time: 4 minutes

Photo Credit: Pope Francis with Giorgio Napolitano in November 2013 ©CNS photo/Paul Haring.

The state funeral of Giorgio Napolitano was held in a secular ceremony; he will be laid to rest in the non-Catholic cemetery in Rome. However, Giorgio Napolitano's relationship with the Popes and the faith deserves to be explored in the light of his intense and rich personal, cultural, political and institutional parable. From which stands out the effigy of a respectful layman and a sharp and credible interlocutor with the Church, fleeing from ideological sectarianism and anticlerical positions.

"The wise will shine like the splendor of the firmament; those who have led many to righteousness will shine like the stars forever." This is the phrase taken from the biblical book of Daniel (chapter 12, verse 3), which Card. Gianfranco Ravasi, dedicated to the President Emeritus of the Italian Republic during the State funeral ceremony in the Chamber of Deputies. Ravasi explained that he wanted to place an ideal "flower" on Napolitano's tomb and that this flower was the phrase taken from Daniel.

"I remember with gratitude the personal meetings I had with him, during which I appreciated his humanity and clairvoyance in making important decisions with rectitude." Upon learning the news of Giorgio Napolitano's death, Pope Francis had remembered him with these words written in a telegram sent to his wife. 

During his two consecutive terms as President of the Italian Republic - from May 15, 2006 to January 14, 2015 - Napolitano met several times with Benedict XVI and Francis, establishing with the two Pontiffs significant relations of reciprocal esteem and respect. He never failed to convey to both the gratitude and affection of the Italian people for their service.

His relationship with Benedict XVI

As reconstructed in recent days by L'Osservatore Romano, relations between Pope Ratzinger and Napolitano began in 2006, when the Pontiff sent a message of good wishes to the newly elected Head of State. Then came the President's official visit to the Vatican on November 20 of the same year. Then, at the Angelus in January 2007, Benedict XVI reciprocated the expressions of good wishes that the President had addressed to him the day before in his New Year's message.

On January 17, 2008, after Pope Ratzinger was prevented from visiting La Sapienza University in Rome, Napolitano wrote a letter to the Pontiff in which he regretted what had happened and described the "manifestations of intolerance" as inadmissible. 

On October 4 of that year, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the Pope reciprocated his visit to the Vatican two years earlier by visiting the Quirinal.

He gave a series of concerts in honor of Benedict XVI on the occasion of the anniversary of his pontificate. Also significant were the messages he sent to the German Pontiff on the occasion of the World Day of Peace.

And it was also with an article in "L'Osservatore Romano" that Napolitano renewed his commitment to Benedict XVIFebruary 28, 2013, "the grateful and affectionate greetings of the Italians", thanking him for his service in the Pontificate.

The bond between the two was described in full by the president himself in an interview granted to our newspaper on July 13, 2012. "One of the most beautiful components that characterized my experience was precisely the relationship with Benedict XVI," Napolitano said in the interview.

In this sense, he pointed out that he had discovered with Pope Ratzinger "a great affinity, we experience a feeling of great and mutual respect. But there is something more, something that has touched our human chords. And for this I am very grateful to him".

Napolitano and Pope Francis

An important relationship was also immediately established with Pope Francis, punctuated by meetings and messages of mutual esteem and support. Above all, the gesture of Sunday, September 24, when the Pope visited the burial chamber of the President Emeritus installed in the Nassiriya Hall of the Senate.

Francis wished to "express - as indicated in a note distributed to journalists - with his presence and his prayer, his personal affection for him and his family, and to honor his great service to Italy." After expressing his condolences to the widow Clio Maria Bittoni and the children of Giulio and Giovanni, the pontiff observed a few minutes of silence before the corpse.

Francis' visit concluded with the signing of the register. The Pope's homage to Giorgio Napolitano was an absolute novelty in the history of Italy. It was the first presence of a pontiff in the Senate of the Republic. On the occasion of his visit to the Quirinal, Pope Francis reminded him of the nature of the mission they share: "to govern complex realities in a continuous attempt to unite".

On October 5, 2012 (Assisi, dialogue between believers and non-believers), Napolitano reflected on his spiritual life and his personal way of arguing faith, making his own Bobbio's words in De Senectute: "When I say that I do not believe in the second life [...] I do not intend to affirm anything peremptory. I only mean to say that the reasons of doubt have always seemed to me more convincing than those of certainty. Personally, I had a religious upbringing, that is, I spent all my adolescence in the sacraments and rites of the Catholic religion, which was my mother's religion and the one taught at school. But I detached myself, as Bobbio said, from a practice that did not in itself guarantee the answer to the "ultimate" questions, and I immersed myself completely in another dimension of life - political, cultural, institutional - that did not involve asking those questions. The real issue is precisely that I did not feel the urgency of those questions even for a long time. Then I was stimulated by encounters and conversations with people of authentic faith. I remember, for example, the impression made on me by La Pira [...]. One can close oneself in the conviction, or in the realization, that one has not been touched by "a light of grace", and close the discourse. On the other hand, the discourse should not end there".

The authorAntonino Piccione

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