On Thursday, in what could be a further sign of a looming papal resignation, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had appointed a nurse from the Vatican’s health services to be his “personal medical assistant”, an entirely new role. Massimiliano Strappetti – Vatican coordinator of nurses and health facilities – will take up the position. The Pope has previously said Ms Strapetti saved his life by convincing him that he could no longer put off surgery after the Holy Father had been suffering from a narrowing of the colon.
The appointment does little to quash rumours of an impending resignation, with potential candidates to succeed Pope Francis – papabili – already being discussed. Of course, had the Pope’s predecessor – Pope Benedict XVI – not set the precedent, it would have been much harder to contemplate Pope Francis leaving office before he died. The Holy Father looked noticeably frail in Canada – and although a visit to Kazakhstan is pencilled in, where the Pope could come face-to-face with his Russian Orthodox counterpart, Patriarch Kirill – it seems unlikely the Pope will be travelling much more in the future.
Returning from Canada, the Pope told reporters he can no longer travel like he did, and one day may have to retire. Pope Francis repeated a phrase – “the door is open” – adding that there was nothing wrong with a Pope stepping down. He said: “It’s not strange. It’s not a catastrophe. You can change the Pope.” This is not the first time the Pope has used such rhetoric, not least in reference to his predecessor.
Again, recently, speaking with Reuters, the Pope said he might resign if poor health made it impossible to continue. The Associated Press also reported that Pope Francis said he would not live in the Vatican or return to Argentina if and when he retires, during an interview with TelevisaUnivision. While denying he was planning to retire anytime soon, the Pontiff again said the “the door is open” after Benedict XVI had stepped down.
Speaking of his predecessor, during the TelevisaUnivision interview, the Pope said: “I think for having taken the first step after so many centuries, he gets 10 points.” Pope Francis has previously said he would like to see the resignation of popes become normalised, and felt his pontificate would be brief, describing his predecessor’s decision to step down as “courageous”. Speculation about the Pope’s future was renewed by the announcement of a visit to L’Aquila in Italy.
This is 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 Benedict XVI visited in 2009, he placed the pallium he wore during his installation Mass on top of Celestine V’s casket. When Benedict XVI resigned in 2013, there was speculation that the gesture had been a sign.
This is the social media age, where visibility really counts. It seems difficult therefore to imagine a head of the Catholic Church who is increasingly housebound. Moreover, if the precedent has been set for papal resignations, it may become normal to appoint younger popes, again something which would perhaps work better in the social media age and, at a time, when global Catholics expect the Pope to travel widely to meet an international audience.
Benedict XVI laid the groundwork for Pope Francis to quit if he so chooses. The Pope’s own words and the appointment of a medical assistant hardly do anything to put rumours to rest, while the Pope’s repeated use of the phrase “the door is open” suggests resigning is now being seriously contemplated.
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