Behind the scenes

Will Pope Francis resign?

Rumours the pontiff could step down after pushing through reforms and struggling with ailing health

Speculation is mounting that Pope Francis could resign from the papacy – rather than die in office – after announcing a visit to the tomb of a 13th-century pontiff who stepped down after only four months.

Italian and Catholic media have been “rife with unsourced speculation” that the 85-year-old Francis could be preparing to quit the role, from which pontiffs rarely resign, said NPR. When Pope Benedict XVI stepped down in 2013, he was the first pope to do so for almost 600 years.  

Now, resignation rumours are being fuelled by the announcement that Francis is to visit the central Italian city of L'Aquila in August for a feast began by Pope Celestine V, one of the few popes to have stepped down before Benedict XVI, who gave up the job in 1294 after just four months.

Health issues 

When Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now known as Pope Francis, was elected to replace Benedict XVI nine years ago, he was a “breath of fresh air” for the Vatican, said Newsweek. The Argentinian cardinal offered a sharp contrast to the “conservative” and “stiff” tenure of his predecessor, Joseph Ratzinger.  

But that “energetic demeanour” has been affected by a series of health issues, including colon surgery, which has meant Francis has used a wheelchair for the past month, adding to speculation that resignation may be on his mind.

Mission accomplished

Francis has also taken several steps to bolster his legacy in recent weeks, having been appointed in 2013 on a mandate to reform the Roman Curia. 

Last month, Francis named 21 new cardinals, 16 of whom are under 80 and will therefore qualify to elect his successor. 

The new cardinals will be officially appointed in Rome at a consistory on 27 August, by which time Francis will have named 83 of the 132 cardinal electors, thereby “raising the chances” they will pick a successor ready to push on with his papal agenda and “mercy before dogma” policies, said The Times.

Two days after the consistory Pope Francis has also invited all cardinals in Rome to discuss the new Vatican constitution, which has been “nine years in the works”, said the paper.

It will allow women to head up Vatican departments, impose term limits on priestly Vatican employees, and position the Holy See as an institution at the service of local churches, as part of Francis’s campaign to “make the Vatican less self-referential and more open to the needs of far-flung dioceses”.

It will mean that Francis’s “main task as pope has in some ways been accomplished”, said NPR.

Significant visit

Having seemingly ensured his legacy, the proposed visit to the tomb of Celestine V feels “pretty final”, said Newsweek. 

Benedict also visited the tomb in 2009, leaving behind his pallium stole. It was an act largely missed at the time, but later came to be seen as a “symbolic gesture ahead of his own resignation”, which came four years later, said The Guardian.

Francis has also previously praised Benedict’s decision to step down as “courageous” and hinted he wanted his own papacy to also be short.

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