The announcement that Pope Francis would visit the central Italian city of L’Aquila in August for a feast initiated by Pope Celestine V, one of the few pontiffs who resigned before Pope Benedict XVI stepped down in 2013, has sent Italian media into an uproar
With rumours already rife in Italian and Catholic media that Pope Francis may be retiring, the 85-year-old pontifex maximus has now poured fuel on the fire.
How so, one might ask?
By stating that he would visit the central Italian city of L’Aquila for a feast in August.
But why would this announcement send such a message? Why is the Italian media in a tizzy? And what do experts say?
Let’s take a closer look:
Why the speculation of retirement?
Francis has suffered from sciatica for several years, a nerve pain that affects the lower back and legs. He cancelled numerous public appearances as a result of the condition in 2021.
He underwent surgery in the summer of 2021 caused by diverticulitis, inflammation of the diverticula, small bulging pouches that can form in the colon. One side of his colon was removed, as per Catholic News Agency.
More recently, Francis has been facing more and more trouble getting around.
Hobbled by strained ligaments in his right knee that have made walking painful and difficult, he spent the last month in a wheelchair.
He also told friends he doesn’t want to undergo surgery, reportedly because of his reaction to anesthesia last July when he had 33 centimeters (13 inches) of his large intestine removed.
Is that all?
Just last week, Francis announced a consistory to create 21 new cardinals scheduled for 27 August.
Sixteen of those cardinals are under age 80 and eligible to vote in a conclave to elect Francis’ successor. Once added to the ranks of princes of the church, Francis will have stacked the College of Cardinals with 83 of the 132 voting-age cardinals.
While there is no guarantee how the cardinals might vote, the chances that they will tap a successor who shares Francis’ pastoral priorities become ever greater.
So, his legacy is secure?
In some ways.
In announcing the 27 August consistory, Francis also announced he would host two days of talks the following week to brief the cardinals about his recent apostolic constitution reforming the Vatican bureaucracy. That document, which goes into effect Sunday, allows women to head Vatican offices, imposes term limits on priestly Vatican employees and positions the Holy See as an institution at the service of local churches, rather than vice versa.
Francis was elected pope in 2013 on a mandate to reform the Roman Curia.
The nine-year project has been rolled out and at least partially implemented.
But what is the significance of the feast?
The feast was initiated by Pope Celestine V.
He is one of the few pontiffs who resigned before Pope Benedict XVI stepped down in 2013.
The basilica in L’Aquila hosts the tomb of Celestine V, a hermit pope who resigned after five months in 1294, overwhelmed by the job. In 2009, Benedict visited L’Aquila, which had been devastated by a recent earthquake and prayed at Celestine’s tomb, leaving his pallium stole on it.
No one at the time appreciated the significance of the gesture. But four years later, the 85-year-old Benedict would follow in Celestine’s footsteps and resign, saying he no longer had the strength of body and mind to carry on the rigors of the papacy.
Francis, incidentally, is the same age as Benedict was when he retired.
The Vatican announced Saturday Francis would visit L’Aquila to celebrate Mass on 28 August and open the “Holy Door” at the basilica hosting Celestine’s tomb. The timing coincides with the L’Aquila church’s celebration of the Feast of Forgiveness, which was created by Celestine in a papal bull.
No pope has travelled to L’Aquila since to close out the annual feast, which celebrates the sacrament of forgiveness so dear to Francis, noted the current archbishop of L’Aquila, Cardinal Giuseppe Petrocchi.
“We hope that all people, especially those harmed by conflicts and internal divisions, might (come) and find the path of solidarity and peace,” he said in a statement announcing the visit.
Francis has praised Benedict’s decision to retire as “opening the door” for future popes to do the same, and he had originally predicted a short papacy for himself of two to five years.
Notable was the timing: The Vatican and the rest of Italy are usually on holiday in August to mid-September, with all but essential business closed. Calling a major consistory in late August to create new cardinals, gathering churchmen for two days of talks on implementing his reform and making a symbolically significant pastoral visit suggests Francis might have out-of-the-ordinary business in mind.
What do experts say?
Experts seem skeptical.
Francesco Mores, a research fellow at the University of Milan and an expert in the history of Christianity and of churches, told Newsweek a major reason popes have not often resigned in history is because of their symbolic role as vicars of Jesus Christ on Earth.
“[The pope] is chosen in some way by God, as Jesus Christ’s vicar. It’s complicated for him to resign this way,” he said.
Mores also said the retirement of Francis — with Benedict already in the background as ‘Emeritus pope’ — would create further complications.
“God save us from such a thing! It’s already hard the way it is,” Mores said.
“Journalists say that he doesn’t speak publicly, but he speaks with his eyes. Trying to interpret someone who communicates with his eyes, next to yet another ‘Emeritus pope’ would be really very complicated,” he added.
“There’s a lot of symbolism at play here and I view [the speculation] with a bit of cynicism,” Christopher White, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter told The Guardian.
“I don’t think it’s likely Francis will want two retired popes in the background. Unintentionally or not, having one pope in an undefined role has been a source of occasional headaches for Francis.”
White added that one of the things Francis wanted to do, should Benedict die before him, was institute reforms on the role a retired pope should play. The pontiff would also most likely want to see through the synod on synodality, a two-year process that ends with a major summit at the Vatican in October 2023.
“That being said, the major thing we’ve learnt about this pope in the last 10 years is that he continues to surprise us, and he seems to take great delight in that surprise element,” said White.
Christopher Bellitto, a church historian at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, noted that most Vatican watchers expect Francis will eventually resign, but not before Benedict dies. The 95-year-old retired pope is physically frail but still alert and receiving occasional visitors in his home in the Vatican gardens.
“He’s not going to have two former popes floating around,” Bellitto said in an email. Referring to Francis’ planned visit to L’Aquila, he suggested not reading too much into it, noting that Benedict’s gesture in 2009 was missed by most everyone.
“I don’t recall a lot of stories at the time saying that Benedict’s visit in 2009 made us think he was going to resign,” he said, suggesting that Francis’ pastoral visit to l’Aquila might be just that: a pastoral visit.
“With today’s news that @Pontifex will go to L’Aquila in the very middle of the August consistory, it all got even more intriguing,” tweeted Vatican commentator Robert Mickens, linking to an essay he had published in La Croix International about the rumours swirling around the future of the pontificate.
In truth, Francis has shown few signs he wants to step down, and he has major projects still on the horizon.
In addition to upcoming trips this year to Congo, South Sudan, Canada and Kazakhstan, in 2023 Francis has scheduled a major meeting of the world’s bishops to debate the increasing decentralization of the Catholic Church, as well as the continued implementation of his reforms.
This week, one of his closest advisers and friends, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, said talk of a papal resignation or the end of Francis’ pontificate was unfounded.
“I think these are optical illusions, cerebral illusions,” Maradiaga told Religion Digital, a Spanish-language Catholic site.
With inputs from agencies
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