Why Pope Francis could resign

Pope Francis

The Vatican announced on Friday that Pope Francis has been forced to cancel his July 2-7 visit to two countries in Africa due to a knee ailment, the exact nature of which it has never made public.

The abrupt cancellation of the trip, which had just been confirmed on May 28, intensified concerns over the pope’s health and the future of his pontificate.

Francis, who is six months into his 86th year, was relegated to using a wheelchair several weeks ago, and it’s becoming more and more obvious that his strength is failing. The only question is to how great an extent.

The answer to that — as he has said on numerous occasions — will determine whether or not he decides to follow in the footsteps of Benedict XVI and resign from the papacy.

“I will do what the Lord tells me to do. Pray and seek God’s will. But I believe that Benedict XVI is not a unique case,” Francis said in May 2014 during a press conference on his flight back from the Holy Land.

“Seventy years ago, for the most part retired bishops didn’t exist. And now, we have plenty of them. What will happen with retired popes? I believe that we should see (Benedict) as an institution: he opened a door, the door to retired popes,” Francis said on that occasion.

“Will there be others? God knows. But this door is open. I believe that a Bishop of Rome, a pope, who feels that his strength is failing – because these days we are living longer – has to ask the same questions that Pope Benedict asked,” he added.

Has Francis begun asking those questions? Many of his supporters refuse to even entertain the thought.

Is the pope perfectly fine? Or does he have a serious illness?

Honduran Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga — one of the Argentine pope’s closest advisors — this week even accused people who openly speculate about a papal resignation as creating a “cheap soap opera”.

The cardinal, who is six years younger than the pope, said Francis has never thought about resigning and added that suggestions that he will are coming from the pope’s enemies.

Rodríguez insisted that the pope “is not going to resign, nor is he sick.” Indeed, he said Francis “is perfectly fine” despite whatever ails him (again, the Vatican has never said) and “will continue to govern the Church.”

But another cardinal in Rome — a native English-speaker who once headed a major Vatican office — has been telling people on at least three continents over the past several months that the pope has a terminal illness.

Which cardinal is right? And do either of them really know?

There is something definitely not right with Pope Francis, but as I wrote for another publication on May 20, the only thing Vatican officials will say is that he has a “knee problem”.

Even though that is keeping him from walking, it has not stopped him from stepping up the pace of his daily activities.

People like Cardinal Rodríguez say this is proof that the pope is fine. But don’t be fooled.

Picking up the pace may not be a good sign

Argentine Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, one of the pope’s personal theologians and ghostwriters, said it means something else.

“If one day he should intuit that he’s running out of time and he doesn’t have enough time to do what the Spirit is asking him,” the archbishop said in 2015, “you can be sure he will speed up.”

Is that what’s happening? Does the pope feels like he’s running out of time?

His announcement on May 27 of a consistory for the creation of new cardinals at the end of August surprised absolutely everyone.

Popes don’t usually hold consistories in August. The last time that happened was in 1807 when Pius VII announced a cardinal in pectore who wasn’t revealed and given the red hat until eleven years later!

And popes don’t usually preannounce consistories three months in advance, either. That, too, is unheard of.

It has been suggested that Francis did so in order to make sure every single member of the College of Cardinals is able to get to Rome for that event and the two days of meetings he’s scheduled for immediately afterwards.

A big announcement coming?

Officially, the gathering is to discuss plans for implementing the new apostolic constitution for the reformed Roman Curia. But that is not an issue that concerns only the cardinals.

As noted last week, the pope may actually be wanting to engage the cardinals in discussions on a matter that is peculiar to them alone — the election of his successor.

Benedict XVI announced his resignation in February 2013 at a consistory for the approval of sainthood causes. Only the cardinals living in Rome and a few others in town on business were at that event.

If Francis is planning to announce a date for his resignation, he may want to do it before all the world’s cardinals.

It is not likely that he would step down immediately and probably not even in a few weeks’ time, as Benedict did. What if, instead, he were to initiate a lengthier period of discernment lasting several months or more?

There is no precedent for this in the Roman papacy, as far as I know. But there is now in the other institution that has deeply shaped Francis — the Society of Jesus.

The new Jesuit way

The Father General of the Jesuits, like the Bishop of Rome, is elected for life.

But Fr. Hans Peter Kolvenbach was the first to voluntarily resign (excluding his predecessor Pedro Arrupe whom the Vatican virtually forced out). Kolvenbach, who was elected Father General in 1983, informed members of the Society of Jesus in 2006 that he intended to step down in 2008, the year he would turn 80.

Fr. Adolfo Nicolás was elected his successor and in May 2014 he wrote to Jesuits around the world informing them that he, too, would be resigning in late in 2016 also at the age of 80.

Nicolás sent a letter to all the world’s Jesuits inviting them to “enter into the process of a profound and genuine spiritual discernment regarding our life and mission” in the run-up to his resignation and the election of his successor.

Each of these Jesuit leaders gave two years’ notice. What if the pope were to do something similar? What would be the purpose?

A period of discernment

This is all posited, of course, on whether Francis comes to the conclusion that he must resign for health reasons or because he feels his “strength is failing”.

In the months following the August consistory, the pope will turn 86 (December 17) and mark the 10th anniversary of his election as Bishop of Rome (March 13). While one or the other anniversary might be a symbolic date to step down, there is something else to consider.

Francis has decided to create 16 new cardinal-electors, bumping up their total number to 132. Why that number and not just 8 or 10, or perhaps 20?

Barring any deaths, it will take just over a year (September 17, 2023) for the number of cardinal-electors to drop back to the 120 ceiling that Paul VI established.

In that period, 10 cardinals created by Benedict XVI and two by John Paul II will age out. Only one of Francis’ cardinals will lose the vote. That’s Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chavez of El Salvador who turns 80 one week after the August consistory.

What if the pope were to announce his resignation for September 2023? It would give the cardinals an entire year to discern the future leadership and trajectory of the Church and a chance to better know each other.

And it could also include discernment by the entire People of God.

The question that all in the Church would be pondering is whether we want to continue on the reforming, expanding path of synodality that Francis has forged or whether we want to return to a safer harbour. It would be, in a sense, a sort of referendum on the pontificate.

The last such was at the conclave of June 1963 following the death of John XXIII. But more than a referendum on the pope’s program, it was a poll on the Second Vatican Council, which had just gotten underway the preceding autumn.

The cardinals elected Paul VI, someone who was committed to continuing the Council and held three more autumn sessions.

As long as Benedict XVI is still alive…

One of the main reasons most people seem to believe talk of Francis’ possible resignation is “crap”, as one of my colleagues called it, is because there is already one retired pope and he’s still alive.

The reasoning is that it would be too confusing to have two former popes living at the same time. But this is not the sort of logic that Francis follows.

In fact, he’s shown that he’s not afraid to create a bit of confusion from time to time — for the purpose of bringing people to a deeper understanding of certain situations or teachings.

During his flight back from Armenia in June 2016, Francis was asked about the issue of having a reigning pope and a retired one and whether that was causing perplexity.

“There is only one pope. The other, or sometimes as with emeritus bishops, there may be two or three of them, but now they are retired,” he said.

So Francis does not appear to be worried about any confusion that might ensue should he retire while Benedict is still alive. His successor would be the “only pope”, while he and Benedict would simply be retired.

As for issuing new protocols governing the resignation process and the rights and duties of the one who resigns the papacy, they would not necessarily have to be applied to Benedict or seen as a rebuke of the way he organized his own resignation and life of retirement.

And in any case, Francis has not been afraid to overturn significant pieces of legislation that his predecessor put in place. Most notable was his abrogation of Benedict’s 2007 “motu proprio” Summorum Pontificum, bringing an end to the unfettered use of the pre-Vatican II liturgy.

“I’ll resign before having another operation!”

To be absolutely clear, we are not talking about “rumours” that the pope is going to resign. There are no such.

Like the surprise announcement of the August consistory, there are probably only one or two people — such as the pope’s personal physician — who have any idea about the exact nature of Francis’ health situation that would fuel any rumours.

We never even got a detailed report last July after he underwent major surgery for the removal of a third of his large intestine. It was discovered, however, that the surgery took longer than expected and the pope credited a nurse with saving his life.

So, rumours? No. It is merely the confluence of Francis’ deteriorating health, the sudden acceleration of his daily activities (and hoped-for travels) and his decision to create 16 new voting cardinals that have led some people to wonder if he is planning to make a big announcement about the future of his pontificate.

A few weeks ago at a closed-door meeting with the Italian bishops’ conference, he apparently said something like, “I’ll resign before I have another operation!”

Certainly after last year’s intestinal surgery, which was evidently somewhat touch-and-go, the pope couldn’t bear to think of putting doctors under the pressure of performing what could be a life or death operation on him.

One thing is absolutely clear, however: Pope Francis has an unshakeable trust in the Holy Spirit, which he said filled him with consolation just moments before he appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica on March 13, 2013, as the newly-elected Bishop of Rome.

He’s said that that sense of peace has never left him. And that’s why whatever he may be contemplating for the next stage of his life and ministry, we can be sure that he’s doing so as best he can in harmony with the Spirit.

  • Robert Mickens is LCI Editor in Chief.
  • First published in La-Croix International. Republished with permission.
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