Speculation is swirling throughout Rome and beyond that Pope Francis is planning to resign at some point in the near future.
The principle reason for this is the Pope’s ailing health. The Holy Father is now seen in public for the most part in a wheelchair.
The official reason for his immobility is his need to rest an inflamed ligament in his knee which is causing him chronic pain and makes it difficult for him to walk.
But unsubstantiated rumours are widespread that Francis, who in July last year underwent surgery to have a left section of his colon removed, is in fact suffering from cancer. Such rumours have not been confirmed by the Vatican.
In any case, in May the papal visit to Lebanon was “postponed” – ie cancelled – just weeks before it was due to take place this month. The Vatican has also just announced that a scheduled visit by Pope Francis in July to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan has also been called off for health reasons.
At time of writing, Francis was still committed to flying across the Atlantic to visit Canada between July 24 and July 29 on “a journey of healing and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples” in the wake of revelations about the role of the Catholic Church in taking indigenous children from their parents and forcing them to be raised in residential schools, where substantial numbers of them died from such diseases as tuberculosis.
But his health problems mean that his visit will be restricted to the cities of Edmonton, Québec and Iqaluit and limited to very few sites because he cannot travel by helicopter nor can he be in a car for longer than an hour.
For a heavy man of 85, such immobility carries the risk of associated co-morbidities developing even in the absence of cancer. Those who are sceptical about rumours of the Pope’s imminent demise nevertheless accept that Francis is at the end of his reign rather than at the beginning of it.
But his health difficulties alone are insufficient to fuel speculation about his resignation. What is really driving the rumours that he is planning to step aside and become the next pope emeritus are his plans for the end of August.
Principally, these concern the Consistory of Cardinals when he will create 16 new cardinals, and load the membership of the College of Cardinals heavily with his own appointments ahead of the next conclave.
The general feeling among Vatican watchers is that this consistory will be the last to be called by Pope Francis. It will mean that he would have created 62 per cent of the cardinals of voting age, many of them expected to share his own view of the Church and the world. The Pope is preparing the college to elect his successor, and this time priming it to choose a man very much like himself.
There are several unusual aspects to this consistory which have added to speculation of a resignation.
One of the most striking is that it will be held on August 27 instead of November, the month when consistories are normally held. It could be argued that the Pope is bringing the consistory forward by three months, leading commentators to ask why he would choose to do that. August is an unusual choice indeed. It is a month when Rome is usually dead with many of its residents getting out to escape its stifling heat.
Oddly, Francis himself will get out of Rome – on the day after the consistory. Normally, a Pope would say Mass with the assembled college and its new members, but Francis will instead travel to the central Italian city of Aquila.
There, he will celebrate Mass outside the basilica in which Pope Celestine V is buried. He will also pray at the tomb of the hermit pope famous for resigning the papacy in 1294. Benedict XVI made a similar trip in 2009, four years before he became the first pope since Celestine to relinquish the Petrine office.
The visit to Celestine’s tomb by any pope would be enough to trigger speculation of an impending resignation. It happened when Pope Paul VI went there in 1966. But given the haste at which Francis has called the consistory and his evident failing health, the speculation in his case appear all the more compelling.
Some people are expecting that Pope Francis might even announce his resignation around the time of his visit to Aquila.
A fourth reason for the speculation is another unusual decision by Francis, this time in calling a meeting of all of the cardinals on Monday August 29 and Tuesday August 30 – immediately after his return from Aquila. It is ostensibly to discuss reforms to the Roman Curia but this kind of meeting does not normally follow a consistory of cardinals.
Francis has consistently demonstrated himself to be an unpredictable man with the power to surprise both friend and foe alike.
It would therefore be imprudent to try to predict with any certainty what he will do in August or to say when and how his papacy will end.
But the Holy Father isn’t getting any younger and his health is visibly in decline. His actions are reflecting that. It would be fair to say that the twilight of the Bergoglian era has surely arrived.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Make a Donation
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund