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Jun 28, 11:42 AM EDT

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VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Retired Pope Benedict XVI thanked Pope Francis and endorsed his mercy-filled ministry Tuesday during an unprecedented Vatican ceremony featuring the reigning pope honoring the retired one on the 65th anniversary of his ordination as a priest.

The ceremony served in part to show continuity from Benedict to Francis amid nostalgia from some conservatives for Benedict's tradition-minded papacy and criticism of Francis' mercy-over-morals priorities.

Francis had invited the entire Vatican Curia, or bureaucracy, to celebrate Benedict's anniversary, and prelates turned out in force for the rare occasion of being able to greet the two men in white. The audience took place in the Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace, the same marble- and fresco-filled room where Benedict bid a final farewell to his cardinals on Feb. 28, 2013, becoming the first pope in 600 years to resign.

While Francis presided over the ceremony, it was Benedict who stole the show with an off-the-cuff, mini-theology lesson on gratitude sprinkled with Greek and Latin that showed that the mind of the German theologian is still sharp at 89.

Benedict thanked Francis for letting him live out his final years in the beauty of the Vatican gardens, where he said he felt "protected."

"Thank you, Holy Father, for your goodness, which from the first moment of your election has struck me every day of my life," Benedict said, speaking without notes. "We hope that you can go forward with all of us on this path of divine mercy, showing us the path of Jesus, toward Jesus, toward God."

Benedict's vote of confidence may help quell conservative criticism of the current pope's loose theology.

Francis has recently dismissed new questions about the implications of Benedict's resignation by insisting that there is only one pope - himself - and that Benedict had pledged his obedience on the day he resigned.

He told reporters this weekend he felt that Benedict "had my back" and was continuing to help the church through his prayers. He added he had heard that Benedict had even sent away some nostalgic faithful who had come to him complaining about the "new pope."

During Tuesday's ceremony, Francis entered the Clementine Hall to applause from the gathered cardinals and went straight to embrace Benedict, who stood up and removed his white skullcap in a sign of deference. They embraced several more times during the ceremony.

Benedict listened intently as Francis addressed him - as "Your Holiness" - lauding his 65 years of service to the church and saying his decision to retire to a life of quiet prayer to a small monastery in the Vatican gardens was a very "Franciscan" thing to do.

The monastery "is nothing like those forgotten corners where today's 'throwaway culture' tends to put those who lose their strength with age," Francis said. "Quite the contrary!"

The monastery, the pope said, is similar to the Porzinuncola, the small chapel in Assisi where his namesake St. Francis founded his order and then spent his dying days.

Benedict has largely kept to his promise to spend his retirement in prayer and meditation, making his appearance in the Vatican on Tuesday all the more rare. Questions about his resignation flared again recently when his secretary, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, claimed that his resignation had actually changed the papal ministry and "expanded" it by having "an active member and a contemplative member."

Church analysts on both the left and right criticized Gaenswein's interpretation, saying there is one pope, Francis, and one papal ministry.


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