Last week the Telegraph reported that, according to the Vatican press office, Pope Francis would not be walking in the traditional Corpus Christi procession through the streets of Rome, from St John Lateran (where he would be celebrating the Mass on the steps) to Santa Maria Maggiore, a distance of nearly a mile. He would be going instead by car, “in order to save his strength for coming engagements”. This, the Telegraph announced, had caused “fresh speculation about Pope Francis’s health”. “The announcement”, the Telegraph went on, “follows the Pontiff’s decision earlier this week to cancel his morning Mass and Wednesday general audiences throughout July.”
Does all this mean that there is any real concern over the Pope’s state of health? Well, the cancellation of his general audiences and morning masses during July doesn’t: he did the same last year. According to John L Allen (who has good sources, and doesn’t make these things up): “Those close to the Pope say that if there’s a reason for concern, it’s not that anybody is hiding the truth about a secret illness but rather that Francis is simply wearing himself out.”
He responds pastorally, sometimes exhaustingly, to events (one reason for his popularity). On Saturday, for instance, the Pope was due to visit the southern Mafia stronghold of Calabria after a three-year-old toddler, Nicola “Coco” Campolongo, was killed recently by the Mafia.
He has established an exhausting regime since he was elected in March last year, one involving a good deal of travel. He made a historic three-day visit to the Middle East in May; and his visit to Brazil last year was a huge success for him personally. He will be travelling to South Korea on his first official visit from August 13-18 (popes have normally eased off during August).
The Boston Globe announced the worries over the Pope’s cancellation of his long walk to Santa Maria Maggiore last week under the headline “‘Health scare’ confirms Pope Francis as Church’s indispensable man”. And the fact is that that is precisely what he is: not simply because he is Pope, but because of what one has to call his God-given personal charism, by which I mean not so much his undoubted PR skills, his media savvy, but his palpable perceptiveness about the Church’s institutions, his determination to change things which need changing, and his flair for seeing what practically has to be done – for instance, his inspired appointment of Cardinal George Pell to oversee the reform of the Vatican’s messy financial goings-on. The Boston Globe has an interview, in the same issue, with Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, who really believes that this time the Pope is going to get the thing done. “I think the real difference this time may be that Pope Francis does follow-ups,” DiNardo said in an interview with the Boston Globe. “He’ll take part in a meeting about a project, and a week later you’ll get a phone call to find out where things stand.”
So, I have to agree with the Globe’s headline describing Pope Francis as the “Church’s indispensable man”, whatever the reservations this column and others may have expressed about the Holy Father’s tendency to well-intentioned but sometimes dicey spontaneous actions – like the occasion when he telephoned a divorced and remarried Argentine woman who had written to him, in order to tell her (according to her anyway) that it was all right for her to receive Holy Communion. Did he really, though? The fact is we don’t know. But it all gives the impression that the Pope isn’t bound by the way things have been done, that he is getting ready to change the whole nature of papal authority and even the actual content of the Catholic religion. I don’t believe for a minute that he is. All the same, as I wrote a week or two ago, “the trouble with all these spontaneous initiatives is that they foster the idea that the Pope is getting ready not just for much-needed reform but also for substantial changes in papal teaching. And that, it has to be faced, is one reason he is so popular with the secular world. This is not good… [In the words of Fr Dwight Longenecker] such initiatives ‘cannot help but erode the more solemn teaching authority of the papacy’.”
I think the Pope needs now to take life a little easier. He needs to slow down. His back bothers him at times, making it uncomfortable for him to sit for long periods; this explains his occasional grimaces. He wears orthopaedic shoes and sometimes walks with difficulty. We all know that part of one of his lungs is missing. “On the whole,” as John Allen remarks, “none of this is terribly out of the ordinary for a 77-year-old man, and none of it seems to be slowing Francis down.”
Well, maybe it should slow him down. I speak as someone who is only two years younger than Pope Francis; and I couldn’t possibly keep up with the pace he sets for those around him. His energy is truly amazing. All the same, we are told, those close to him think “he is simply wearing himself out”. He needs now to conserve his energy. Most Popes have quite rightly taken August off, in Castel Gandolfo. Pope Francis? He is off to Korea instead. KOREA!!
Well, he can’t get out of that, now. But the minute he gets back, on August 18, he should go straight to Castel Gandolfo (by helicopter, not in his Ford Focus), for at least two, and preferably three, weeks. He should get up late. He should go boating on the lake; he should visit the bees, to see how they are getting along. He should have afternoon naps.
And when he gets back to the Vatican, he should adopt a slower tempo. He should delegate more. He should take the time to reflect before acting or speaking. This pontificate is a work in progress; it needs now to develop and to consolidate. It could still be one of the great papal reigns, perhaps one of the greatest of the century, second only perhaps to that of the very different Pope Benedict. What we don’t need any time soon is another conclave, before Cardinal Pell and the other reformers he has appointed have finished their work.