Questions over Pope Francis’ resignation swirl as he uses a wheelchair
“I would like to apologise,” he said, telling pilgrims one morning that he could not greet them on foot as usual.
François still hopes that rest can restore his mobility. But in the meantime, his daily life has changed as well as the very image of his pontificate: at 85, his fragility is unavoidable.
It has brought to the fore questions about Francis’ future – whether his pontificate is nearing its end point and whether he might consider stepping down.
Those inside and familiar with the Catholic Church talk about the subject more seriously than they did even a year ago, after Francis underwent colon surgery to treat a painful bowel condition. .
And while the pope’s wheelchair addiction is a fundamental factor in speculation, it has been amplified by his decision to convene a consistory for Aug. 27 and install 21 new cardinals, including 16 under 80 who would have the right to vote in a conclave. This huge influx means that Francis will have selected more than 60% of the figures who will choose his replacement, increasing the chances – although hardly guaranteeing – of a like-minded successor.
For some Vatican watchers, it’s a sign that Francis feels the urgency to prepare the church for his departure.
“What is clear is that his pontificate has entered the final phase of decline” where resignation becomes more feasible, said Massimo Faggioli, professor of theology at Villanova University. “He is aware that he is nearing the end of his pontificate.”
Provided Francis is still in office at the end of October, he will become the oldest sitting pope since Clement XII, who died aged 87 in 1740.
Francis, for his part, said that whenever a pope is sick, talk of a conclave always follows like a “breeze or a hurricane.”
But whether the final point occurs in a few months or a few years is anyone’s guess, and this pontificate has been characterized by its surprises.
In recent days, some Italian and international news reports have suggested that the pope’s abdication may be within reach – a theory based less on hard evidence than on a series of unusual events predicted for late August, starting with the consistory. Popes don’t normally convene consistories in late summer, when Rome is still in vacation mode. And the pope has planned a trip to the central Italian city of L’Aquila, where he will visit a basilica which houses the tomb of Celestine V, one of the few popes to resign.
But for many in the Vatican, this tea leaf reading goes too far: They see no signs that Francis is ready to step down.
“His [health] the situation is not bright,” said a senior Vatican official, requesting anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue. “But it is not enough to impose a resignation.”
Unlike when John Paul II started using a wheelchair because of Parkinson’s disease, Francis still has his faculties. And Francis’ stamina remains considerable. Knee pain has forced him to skip only a few events, and he’s taking big trips in July to central Africa – the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan – and Canada. Francis is also planning a trip to Kazakhstan in September.
The biggest obstacle to the pope’s abdication, however, has nothing to do with his schedule. Conventional thinking in the Vatican is that Francis would be reluctant to step down while Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is still alive. Benedict, 95, has now been an ex-pope longer than he has been pope, and his presence — and occasional interjections about church events — have complicated Francis’ pontificate. Having two ex-popes at the same time would be even trickier.
Pope Benedict XVI, in retirement isolation, looms in opposition to Pope Francis
Before Benedict XVI’s historic resignation in 2013, resignation had not even figured as an option for modern popes, who have served until death. Francis made it clear that Benedict’s decision “should not be seen as an exception.” But Benedict’s decision, which came without any prior warning, has also created an environment in which future popes will face greater scrutiny over whether and how they will quit their jobs.
“I think that kind of chatter is inevitable,” said Austen Ivereigh, a biographer of Francis. “Benedict opened the door for every future pope to discern whether, when the time came, it was right to step down.”
Ivereigh met Francis recently and did not come away feeling a resignation is imminent. Ivereigh said Francis had a difficult experience with anesthesia related to his colon surgery and was therefore adamant to avoid knee surgery. He is undergoing physiotherapy.
“He was in pain and he was tired,” Ivereigh said of Pope when they met. “I just asked him how he was doing. He said things got better, actually. He uses a cane at least once in a while.
Among Catholic audiences, Francis’ reputation has been shaped above all by his messages on global issues such as migration and climate change, and on hot Church topics such as sexuality. But within the Vatican bureaucracy, just as crucial is how Francis reformed the corps of cardinals who will one day choose his replacement.
It bypassed bishops in archdioceses that normally have cardinals — Milan, for example — and reached traditionally less-represented countries, such as East Timor, Guatemala, Mongolia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. After the next consistory, the number of voting-age cardinals from Asia and Africa will have almost doubled, compared to the conclave that elected Francis.
This change only added to the unpredictability that will come with the next Conclave. Even with nine years of Francis’ appointments, the cardinals selected by the conservatives Benedict and John Paul II will still represent 37% of the group. Their voices will be crucial for any future pope to reach the two-thirds threshold. And compared to periods under previous pontiffs, the so-called College of Cardinals met less frequently during Francis’ tenure — a trend that was in place even before the pandemic.
They will soon have the chance to get to know each other.
Francis said that two days after the consistory – and one day after the trip to L’Aquila – church cardinals will meet for two days to “reflect” on the new constitution that has reshaped the Roman Curia, the bureaucracy of the Vatican.
For this gathering, Francis did not indicate that anything else would be on the agenda.