The rumour mill surrounding Pope Francis’ future will hardly have been calmed as the Pontiff returned from his “pilgrimage of penance” to Canada. Travelling back to Rome, the Pope told reporters he can no longer travel like he did because of knee problems, calling the visit “a bit of a test” which showed he needed to slow down and one day perhaps retire. While the Pope said he had not thought about resigning, he repeated a phrase – that “the door is open” – adding that there was nothing wrong with a Pope stepping down.
This is not the first time the Pope has used such rhetoric, not least in reference to his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Last month, speaking with Reuters, the Pope repeated his position that he might resign if poor health made it impossible to continue. Also last month, the Associated Press reported that Pope Francis said he would not live in the Vatican or return to Argentina if and when he ever retires, during an interview with TelevisaUnivision. While denying he was planning to retire anytime soon, the Pope said the “the door is open” after Pope Benedict had stepped down.
Speaking of his predecessor, during the TelevisaUnivision interview, the Pope said: “The first experience went rather well because he’s a saintly and discreet man, and he handled it well. But in the future, things should be delineated more, or things should be made more explicit. I think for having taken the first step after so many centuries, he gets 10 points. It’s a marvel.” Speculation about the current Pope’s future was renewed by the announcement of a visit to L’Aquila in Italy, something other popes have undertaken before retirement.
Included in the trip will be a Mass in the square outside the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio, burial place of Pope St. Celestine V, who resigned after five months. When Pope Benedict visited in 2009, he placed the pallium he wore during his installation Mass on top of Pope Celestine’s casket. When Pope Benedict resigned in 2013, there was speculation that the gesture had been a sign. At the start of his own papacy, Pope Francis said he would like to see the resignation of popes become normalised, and later said he had a feeling his pontificate would be brief, describing his predecessor’s decision to step down as “courageous”.
Meanwhile, several recent moves have indicated a desire for the Pontiff to secure his legacy. For instance, Pope Francis is set to host a consistory to create 21 new cardinals alongside a meeting with cardinals to discuss reform of the Roman Curia, where the Pope is likely to discuss reforms to Vatican administration. Pope Francis also recently named three women to the Dicastery for Bishops, the first time females have been appointed to the body responsible for identifying future bishops.
Speaking over the weekend about a possible resignation, the Pope said: “It’s not strange. It’s not a catastrophe. You can change the Pope.” The concern for many conservatives, however, is that the current Pope’s legacy will have been secured not only by what he has done but – owing to the makeup of cardinals – by the fact any successor is more likely to be in his image. Meanwhile, just as Pope Benedict has been a loadstar for conservatives, depending on how long Pope Francis were to live he too could be a loadstar for liberals.
Pope Benedict has been accused of undermining Catholic unity, with some Canon lawyers questioning his decisions in retirement, such as keeping his papal name and wearing a white cassock. Pope Francis himself has said that while having a retired pope has gone well, the Vatican needs to better regulate the figure of an emeritus pope. To what extent the Church can coexist happily with two retired pontiffs from different sides of an ongoing cultural divide is up for discussion. It would be likely to exacerbate existing tensions.
Pope Francis then will have done little to quash resignation rumours as he returned from Canada. In many respects, what the Pontiff said was nothing new, and repeating comments about the door being open may in fact be a way of placating those who want to see him ousted. Regardless, Pope Francis has – by now – done an enormous amount to secure his legacy. The big risk for conservatives is not only that the Pope’s shadow will loom large over any successor, but that – out of office – he could act as a loadstar for Catholic liberals, a big danger at a time when talk of schism is in the air.
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