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Message in the sky over Italy’s beaches spreads conspiracy theory on Francis being the ‘anti-pope’

Pope Francis, right, hugs Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI prior to the start of a meeting with elderly faithful in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Sept. 28, 2014.
Pope Francis, right, hugs Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI prior to the start of a meeting with elderly faithful in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Sept. 28, 2014. Copyright AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, File
Copyright AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, File
By Giulia Carbonaro
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Messages transported by small planes over Italy’s beaches this summer have spread the debunked conspiracy theory that Pope Francis is not the legitimate head of the Catholic Church.

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Planes carrying odd messages about Benedict XVI, the former head of the Catholic Church who resigned in 2013 after suffering from debilitating health issues, have appeared in the spotless blue sky above Italy’s most populated beaches this summer.

“Benedict was in sedes impedita,” a message carried by a small plane flying over 350 kilometres of the Adriatic coast on Sunday, 27 August read, referring to a term known within the Vatican to indicate that the pope is exiled, imprisoned, or otherwise confined.

Another similar message, flown over the coastline of Lazio on 16 July, read: “Benedict XVI didn’t really abdicate.”

The strange messages have attracted the curiosity of thousands of beachgoers, as well as that of the local media. That’s exactly what journalist Andrea Cionci, who believes Francis is not the legitimate pope, wanted.

For a while now, Cionci - who writes for the Italian rightwing newspaper Libero - has tried to spread a conspiracy theory saying that Pope Francis is the “anti-pope” put in office to replace Benedict XVI - Joseph Ratzinger - with a more liberal and progressive figure.

According to the journalist, the pope left hints in his resignation speech that he wasn’t really abdicating - but that he was being forced to do so. 

He said the truth would be revealed by three cardinals in the know after Ratzinger’s death - a prediction that has failed to materialise after the former pope died on 31 December 2022.

Cionci wrote up his theory in a book - titled Code Ratzinger - which tells the story of the supposedly complex plot behind installing Pope Francis as head of the church. But his theory had failed to attract much attention, until a group of lawyers called Abritrium funded the curious flights above Italy's beaches this summer. 

Cionci has defended himself by saying he’s not a conspiracy theorist, despite what he’s been called in the media - and despite the fact that several experts, among which are supporters of Francis and more conservative Catholics, have disproven his theory.

In an article published online analysing Cionci’s theory, expert Silvio Barbaglia said the journalist could only find a secret message in Benedict’s resignation speech when looking at it “in bad faith.”

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