ROME — For the past few weeks, close observers of the Roman Catholic Church have been poring over the shadows on the Vatican walls for evidence that Pope Francis is about to retire.
They pointed to an unexpected move to create new cardinals in August as a sign Francis, 85, was stacking the college that will elect his successor ahead of an early exit.
They read in depth about his planned visit to an Italian city with a connection to a medieval pope who gave up.
Pope Benedict XVI, center, in 2013 became the first pontiff to retire in nearly 600 years. Photo Max Rossi/Reuters
They saw the Pope’s use of a wheelchair and the cancellation of a trip to Africa as evidence of the premature end of his papacy, despite explanations from the Vatican about the healing of his right knee.
But in an interview published on Monday, Francis dispelled the rumours, calling the alleged evidence mere “coincidences” and telling Reuters the idea of resignation “never crossed my mind”.
At the moment, no.
“At the moment, no. Actually.”
The only shadow that seemed real then was that cast by Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who in 2013 became the first pontiff to retire in nearly 600 years.
In doing so, he changed the papacy’s nature and perception of a lifelong mission assigned by the Holy Spirit to a more earthly calling, subject to political pressures, health assessments, and considerations of the best interests of the church.
“Now it’s much easier to imagine a resignation because Benedict paved the way for that and changed our perception,” said Giovanna Chirri, a veteran Vatican reporter who broke the news of Benedict’s retirement when he understood the pope, much to the surprise of the cardinals. around him, tendering his resignation while speaking in Latin.
“It is not like before”.
For all of Benedict’s struggles to make a mark on the church, his papacy is often remembered for its public relations gaffes and inconvenient revelations about dysfunction within the Vatican.
But the German pontiff’s decision to resign transformed the office, creating eras before and after to Benedict when it comes to expectations of how long popes will remain in power.
Francis is clearly living in the post-Benedict era, often leaving open the possibility of one day resigning if failing health did. impossible lead the church.
“But when the time comes when I see 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 a very good thing for the church. He told the popes to stop in time. Benedict is one of the greats.”
On a 2009 visit to L’Aquila, which had been devastated by a recent earthquake, Benedict solemnly placed his pallium, the vestment that symbolizes his papal authority, over the tomb of Celestine V.
In 2010, he returned to nearby Sulmona, known for the sugar-coated almonds popular at Italian weddings and Vatican receptions, and again honored Celestine V as he prayed over his remains.
In 1294 Celestine issued a decree affirming the right of a pope to resign and then acted on it.
His successor imprisoned him and later died in prison.
Dante then placed him in Hell for “the great rejection”.
Not in vain, no other Pope took the Celestine name.
Benedict later told an interviewer that he was not thinking of resigning at all when he visited the tomb, but he was on the minds of church rumors when the Vatican announced that Francis would celebrate Mass on August 28 and open the “Holy Door.” ” in the basilica that houses the tomb of Celestine, whose example Benedict eventually followed.
Benedict received a grand farewell, with an outpouring of adoration that mostly eluded him during his eight-year reign, telling the faithful that “loving the church means also having the courage to make difficult and painful decisions, always putting the good of the church before oneself.”
His Conservative supporters weren’t too happy, especially when he promised to be “hidden from the world”.
It was withdrawn in the Vatican gardens, in part to prevent the creation of a center of alternative power to Vatican City.
But for the next nine years, Benedict, who assumed the title of “Pope Emeritus,” has at times been favorably invoked by traditionalist opponents of Francis and has emerged to give his successor heartache, even as a book written on his name staunchly defended celibacy as Francis weighed whether to lift the restriction on married priests in remote areas.
While Francis and Benedict, now 95 and extremely frail, have remained deeply respectful of one another, the inability to have a multitude of three potatoestwo retired and one in power, denied all recent rumors of resignation.
Francis is now the same age Benedict was when he resigned, and aging has taken its toll on his nearly decade on the throne.
His recent health challenges and stern expressions have fueled speculation of his retirement, especially among enemies in the Vatican who hoped to see him go.
Last July, he underwent surgery to remove part of his colon.
The operation kept him hospitalized for 10 days, though he later told a Spanish-language radio station that he had never thought of quitting.
The Pope also has problems with sciatica, a chronic nerve condition that causes back, hip and leg pain.
Outbreaks have forced him to cancel or modify high-profile appearances and, with his knee problems, have put him in a wheelchair at times.
Even Francis’s supporters openly declared that his pontificate had entered his final phase.
“But even with the best prognosis, age is catching up with Francis,” the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit like Francis, wrote in Religion News Service at the time of his surgery.
“We can remember 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 Santa Marta residence in the Vatican, Francis walked, albeit precariously, with a cane.
“I have to start moving because there’s a danger of losing muscle tone if you don’t move,” he said.
“It is getting better”. Once seated, he was sharp and sociable and made it clear that he has much more to do.
He dismissed other Vatican rumors (“judicial gossip”) that doctors had discovered cancer in an operation last year, (“they didn’t tell me anything about it”) and explained for the first time that he had suffered “a small fracture” in his right knee as a result of a misstep, and that his gait altered inflamed a ligament.
“I am slowly getting better,” he said, adding that he was receiving laser and magnetic therapy and avoided an operation because the general anesthesia in last year’s colon surgery had caused negative side effects.
He said doctor’s orders about a “health risk” to his knee forced him to postpone travel to South Sudan and the Congo.
The decision, he said, caused him “a lot of suffering” but risked undoing all of his knee therapy.
He expressed his hope to visit Moscow and then kyiv, Ukraine, shortly after returning from Canada, which he plans to visit later this month.
“The first thing is to go to Russia to try to help in some way,” he said. “But I would like to go to both capitals.”
And inside the church, Francis is still hard at work renovating the church after what he sees as an erosion in the hierarchy.
He is making significant changes to the Curia, the bureaucracy that runs the Vatican, seeking modernize the liturgy and appoint new laymen and women to positions of authority.
“As long as he can coordinate the process that he started, he will want to do it,” Chirri said, adding:
“If he has enough energy to govern, he will continue to do so for another 10 years.”
Gaia Pianigiani contributed to this report.
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