ROME — In recent weeks, close observers of the Roman Catholic Church have carefully studied the shadows on the Vatican walls as evidence that Pope Francis is about to retire.
They pointed to an unexpected move to create new cardinals in August as a sign that Francis, 85, is piling up the college that will choose his successor before leaving early. They read deeply into his planned visit to an Italian city with a connection to a medieval pope who called it quits. They saw the pope’s use of a wheelchair and his cancellation of a trip to Africa as evidence of the premature end of his papacy, despite explanations from the Vatican about a healing right knee.
But in an interview published Monday, Francis dispelled the rumours, calling the alleged evidence mere “coincidence” and telling Reuters that the idea of resigning “never crossed my mind. Not any time soon. Not any time soon. Really.”
The only shadow that seemed real at the time was that of Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who in 2013 became the first pope to retire in nearly 600 years. In doing so, he changed the nature and perception of the papacy from a lifelong mission assigned by the Holy Spirit to a more earthly calling, subject to political pressure, health assessments, and considerations about the interests of the Church.
“Now it’s much easier to imagine a resignation, because Benedict paved the way for that, and it changed our perception,” said Giovanna Chirri, a veteran Vatican reporter who broke the news of Benedict’s retirement when she understood the Pope. to the shock of the cardinals around him, offer his resignation while speaking in Latin. “It’s not like it used to be.”
Despite all of Benedict’s struggles to leave a mark on the church during his papacy, often remembered for his public relations missteps and uncomfortable revelations about dysfunctions within the Vatican, the German Pope’s decision to resign from office changed pre-Benedict and post-Benedict eras arose when it comes to expectations of how long popes will remain in power.
Francis clearly lives in the post-Benedict era and often leaves open the option of resigning one day when declining health makes it impossible to run the church.
“But when the time comes when I see that I can’t do it, I will,” Francis said again of his retirement in the Reuters interview. “And that was the great example of Pope Benedict. It was such a good thing for the church. He told the Popes to stop on time. He is one of the greats, Benedict.”
During a 2009 visit to L’Aquila, which had been devastated by a recent earthquake, Benedict solemnly placed his pallium, the robe that symbolizes his papal authority, on the tomb of Celestine V. In 2010, he returned to nearby Sulmona, known for for the sugar-coated almonds popular at Italian weddings and Vatican receptions, and once again honored Celestine V as he prayed for his remains.
In 1294 Celestine issued a decree confirming the right of a pope to resign, and acted accordingly. His successor imprisoned him to prevent any antipope instillation, and he later died in prison. Dante then put him in hell for “the great refusal.” Not surprisingly, no other pope took the name Celestine.
Benedict later told an interviewer that he had no idea at all of resigning when he visited the tomb, but it was on the mind of the church’s rumor mill when the Vatican announced that Francis would be celebrating Mass on August 28 and the “Holy Door” would open. ” at the basilica that houses the tomb of Celestine, whose example Benedict eventually followed.
Benedict was given a massive broadcast, with an outpouring of adoration that mostly eluded him during his eight-year reign, telling the faithful that “to love the church also means having the courage to make difficult, painful decisions, always keeping the good of the church for yourself.” .” His conservative supporters were unenthusiastic, especially when he promised to be “hidden from the world.” He retired to the Vatican Gardens, in part to avoid creating an alternative center of power from Vatican City.
But over the next nine years, Benedict, who took the title “Pope Emeritus,” was at times welcomed by traditionalist opponents of Francis and came forward to give his successor a headache, even as a book written in his name vigorously defended celibacy. while Francis considered whether to lift the restriction on married priests in remote areas.
While Francis and Benedict, now 95 and exceedingly frail, have maintained deep respect for each other, the improbability of having a mob of three popes, two retired and one in power, belied all recent rumors of resignation.
Francis is now the same age as Benedict when he retired, and aging has taken its toll in his nearly ten years on the throne. His recent health problems and stern expressions have sparked speculation about his resignation, especially among enemies in the Vatican who hoped to see him leave.
Last July, he underwent surgery to remove part of his colon. The surgery kept him in the hospital for ten days, although he later told a Spanish-language radio station that he never thought of stopping.
The Pope also has problems with sciatica, a chronic nerve disorder that causes back, hip and leg pain. Flare-ups have forced him to cancel or change high-profile gigs, and with his knee problems they have sometimes put him in a wheelchair.
Even followers of Francis openly declared that his pontificate had reached its final stage.
“But even with the best prognosis, age catches up with Francis,” Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit like Francis, wrote in Religion News Service at the time of his surgery. “We can look back on his hospitalization as the moment that marked the beginning of the end of his papacy.”
But in his interview with Reuters, conducted on July 2 at his residence in Santa Marta in the Vatican, Francis walked, however dangerously, with a cane.
“I have to start moving because there’s a danger of losing muscle tone if someone doesn’t move,” he said. “It’s getting better and better” Once seated, he was sharp and sociable and made it clear that he has much more to do.
He ignored other Vatican rumors (“court gossip”) about doctors discovering cancer during surgery last year (“they didn’t tell me about it”) and explained for the first time that he had suffered “a minor fracture”. in his right knee due to a misstep, and that his altered gait inflamed a ligament.
“I’m slowly getting better,” he said, adding that he was undergoing laser and magnet therapy and avoiding surgery because general anesthesia during last year’s colon surgery had given him bad side effects.
He said the doctor’s prescription about a “health risk” to his knee forced him to postpone the trip to South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The decision, he said, caused him “a lot of suffering,” but it risked undoing all of his knee therapy.
He also expressed hopes to visit Moscow and then Kiev shortly after his return from Canada, which he will visit later this month. “The first thing to do is go to Russia and try to help in some way,” he said. “But I would like to go to both capitals.”
And within the Church, Francis is still hard at work renewing the Church after what he sees as an erosion in the hierarchy. He makes significant changes to the Curia, the bureaucracy that runs the Vatican, and attempts to modernize the liturgy and appoint new laity and women to positions of authority.
“As long as he can coordinate the process he has started, he will want to do it,” said Ms Chirri, adding: “If he has enough energy to rule, he will continue to do it for another 10 years.”
Gaia Pianigianic reporting contributed.