Pope Francis prayed Tuesday before the tomb of Pope John Paul II on the eighth anniversary of the beloved pontiff's death in what the Vatican said was evidence of Francis' "profound spiritual continuity" with popes past.
In his three weeks as pope, Francis has jolted the Catholic Church with several gestures that broke with papal tradition, including renouncing certain liturgical vestments, choosing to live in the Vatican hotel rather than the papal apartments, and washing the feet of a Muslim woman during a Holy Thursday ritual re-enacting Jesus Christ's washing of his apostles' feet.
But Francis has also visited with his immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI, and spoken on the phone with him at least three times. And on Monday, he visited the tomb of St. Peter, the first pontiff, which is located in the necropolis underneath St. Peter's Basilica.
On Tuesday, he waited until the basilica was closed to the general public to visit the tomb of John Paul II, the Polish pope who died in 2005. The tomb is located in the St. Sebastian chapel, just inside the entrance of the basilica. He also prayed before the tombs of Popes Pius X and John XXIII.
"As with the visit yesterday to the tomb of St. Peter and the Vatican grottoes, this evening's visit to the basilica expresses the profound spiritual continuity of the popes' petrine ministry, which Pope Francis lives and feels intensely, as he has shown repeatedly with his phone calls to his predecessor Benedict XVI," the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said in a statement.
Traditionalist Catholics have been devastated by some of Francis' gestures, which they have seen as a rejection primarily of efforts by Benedict XVI to revive the pre-Vatican II tradition of the church, including much of the pomp of the papacy.
As a result, Francis' visit to the tomb of Pope Pius X was particularly significant. Pius X, who lived from 1835-1914, is known to some degree as the anti-modern pope: He wrote an encyclical on the dangers of "modernism" in church doctrine and is the namesake of the schismatic group of traditionalist Catholics, the Society of St. Pius X, with whom Benedict tried unsuccessfully to reconcile during his eight-year pontificate.
Visiting Pius' tomb could be seen as a gesture by Francis to those traditionalists upset by his election. Aside from the gesture, however, he and Pius share many priorities - particularly a concern for the poor.
John XXIII, meanwhile, called the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 meetings that brought the church into the modern world. The Society of St. Pius X was formed in 1969 in stark opposition to Vatican II's modernizing reforms.
In visiting both tombs on Tuesday night, Francis may have been sending a signal that he sees himself as something of a bridge between the two seemingly contrasting pontificates and the resulting divisions within the church today.
John Paul in 2001 made the then-Archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Mario Bergoglio a cardinal. Bergoglio was elected pope on March 13 and took the name Francis, the first time a pontiff has chosen that name.