The future of the pope between concern and speculation

See signs or stick to facts? The pope’s ailing health, which has forced him to postpone his trip to Africa, has reignited speculation about a possible resignation, a cyclical theory fueled by the Vatican’s cult of secrecy but should be viewed with caution.

Pope Francis’ visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, scheduled for early July, has been postponed indefinitely, and the images of a sovereign pope grimacing in pain at certain appearances have many wondering: will he make his trip to Canada to appreciate? , planned for the end of July? The Vatican replies that this will remain “until further notice”.

The 85-year-old Argentine Jesuit, weakened by severe pain in his right knee, has been moving in a wheelchair or with a cane since the beginning of May. To relieve his knee pain, he receives regular infiltrations and undergoes physiotherapy sessions, according to the Vatican, which maintains discretion regarding his health.

The treatment “is proceeding and bearing fruit,” assures a Vatican source. However, these rare late changes in the Holy See’s well-oiled machinery have reignited concerns about Jorge Bergoglio’s ability to govern and reignited rumors of a possible resignation.

This theory “comes back cyclically,” observes Italian Vatican scholar Marco Politi, author of Francis, the Plague and Rebirth. “These rumors are being encouraged by the pope’s opponents who are eager to see Francis go.”

In 2014, Francis himself helped fuel this hypothesis by believing Benedict XVI. “opened a door” by resigning from office.

With the possibility of an imminent departure, other voices call for moderation. “Around the pope, the majority of people don’t believe much in the possibility of resignation,” a Vatican source told AFP.

“Many years can pass from the moment when people say that the Pope is very ill: John Paul II’s illness began in 1993 and ended in 2005,” recalls Alberto Melloni, historian of Christianity and secretary of the Foundation for Religious Studies .

“These are things you want to understand, speculate on, but have little to say,” he adds, regretting “excessive media hype about the Pope and the Church.”

The health of Francois – who had part of a lung removed as a youth and suffers from chronic sciatica – had previously fueled speculation during his colon surgery in July 2021. However, this heightened interest in the spiritual leader of Catholics, whose social networks were expanding and the echo is anything but new.

“Under John Paul II, the progression of the disease was very visible, there were questions for years” and “there was also often false news,” remembers Father Federico Lombardi, former head of the press room of the Holy See.

“By Benedict XVI. it was rather old age that progressed and gradually led to resignation,” he adds, referring to the 95-year-old pope emeritus, who lives in a Vatican monastery.

In September 2021, François – who continues to receive many political or religious leaders every morning – had scoffed at these rumours. I am “still alive, although some want me dead,” he joked.

But three events this spring are fueling questions, including the holding of a consistory on August 27 to create twenty new cardinals – including future electors in the event of a conclave, a very unusual time for that event.

The Pope will gather cardinals from all over the world in Rome and travel to L’Aquila (Abruzzo), to the tomb of Celestine V, the first pope to resign in the 13th century. This unprecedented connection has caught the attention of the Italian and international press, some of which see it as an opportunity for the Pope to announce his decision to the world.

But “at this stage it’s about being realistic and not alarming,” says Marco Politi angrily. According to him, this meeting could also be a simple “moment of general discussion on the reform of the Curia” recorded by the Vatican government through the entry into force of a new “constitution” in early June.

Another key issue for Francis is the World Synod of Bishops, a broad consultation on Church organization that will end in 2023. This event “is almost a mini-council: it therefore seems difficult to imagine that the Pope would want to go halfway through this great undertaking that he himself has decided on,” explains Mr. Politi, who also underlines the difficulty of having three Popes in the Vatican to have.

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