The world went nearly 600 years without a pope resigning before a frail Benedict XVI stepped down in 2009. The Vatican rumor mill is now working overtime on whether the next wait won’t be so lengthy.
Rumors swirled in Rome on Monday that an ailing Pope Francis, age 85, is considering stepping down, a move that would make him the second consecutive leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics to leave office while still alive. The Argentine-born pontiff has been forced to cancel long-planned trips and some say his agenda for the coming years offers signs he is contemplating following Benedict’s example.
Yet while both the religious and popular press were studying the papal smokestack above St. Peter’s Square for clues, two leading pundits were quick to quash speculation that Francis was going anywhere.
“The Pope has said for nine years that if he feels it is appropriate for him to retire, he will retire or abdicate, which is the proper term,” George Weigel, a distinguished fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said in a telephone interview. “So everyone should just bloody well calm down.”
Francis, formerly Cardinal Jose Maria Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, was elected in 2013 following Benedict’s shock resignation, abruptly ending an eight-year papacy as Benedict announced he was too sick to carry out his duties.
According to the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and Religion News Service commentator, media speculation on Francis’ health and potential retirement “is a very easy story to write,” and thus one that keeps popping up. He said Benedict’s resignation also opened the door for continued coverage.
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“This is a story that’s going to run in every papacy for the rest of the century,” Father Reese said. “And all you have to do is plug in the names and what the particular ailment is, that the pope has. But, you know, as long as his mind is clear, as long as he can meet with people and have an intelligent conversation and make decisions, make prudent decisions. [Francis] can be pope.”
The renewed speculation over the pope’s health and his immediate future — which official sources have yet to confirm or deny — is not without some basis. Francis, who had part of a lung removed in 1957 after a case of pleurisy, had half of his colon removed in July 2021 and suffers chronic knee pain.
On June 12, the pope announced with “great sorrow” that he was postponing indefinitely an announced July 2 trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, a move announced the previous Friday by Vatican officials. Observers said it was unusually short notice for such a cancellation.
The move, coupled with Francis’ recent use of a wheelchair when attending public events, fueled speculation about his health. On June 13, the Vatican said the pope would not celebrate the annual Mass for the Solemnity of Corpus Domini, a ritual which usually involved the pope’s presence at Rome’s Basilica of St. John Lateran.
And in August — usually a vacation month for the Vatican and for Italy as a whole — Francis plans to name a raft of new cardinals, which would mean his appointees would form a majority of those who would vote on a successor in the College of Cardinals.
The Agence France-Presse news agency reported Sunday that there were elevated rumors of a potential resignation, even as the story quoted experts warning against such a move as being imminent. The sharp divisions between Catholic conservative and more liberal factions and Francis’ moves to shake up the powerful Vatican bureaucracy have only intensified the interest in Francis’s plans and how long he can stay on the job.
American journalist Megyn Kelly has added another log to the fire. Ms. Kelly’s online account on Twitter of what she called unusual happenings at the Vatican observed on a family trip generated 797,000 views online and 4,850 shares.
“Inside the Vatican moments ago, we saw a ton of cardinals, which our guide tells us is highly unusual,” Ms. Kelly, a former Fox News and NBC News anchor, said. “They’re not used to seeing that — that’s not normal. Earlier, when we were in the Sistine Chapel, a priest or a bishop, [it’s] unclear, came in and gave us a blessing, also highly unusual. What was he doing there? Why was he doing that? What did he know? But there’s a lot of buzz going on right here,” she added.
Mr. Weigel was quick to dismiss Ms. Kelly’s speculation, however.
“Megyn Kelly knows as much about the Vatican as I know about differential calculus, which is nothing,” he said. “The pope may well abdicate if his health situation indicates to him that that is necessary for the good of the church. But I don’t think we are anywhere near that point.”
The vast majority of popes have served until death, and the last known pope to quit was Gregory XII in 1415, according to the Rev. John O’Malley, who compiled a history of papal departures for NPR.
Before Gregory, Pope Celestine V resigned in December 1296, a mere six months after being elected. In 2009, now-retired Pope Benedict XVI made a pilgrimage to Celestine’s tomb and placed his pallium stole, which denotes papal authority, on the tomb. Benedict resigned four years later.
Francis is slated to visit Celestine’s tomb in late August — a move which only offered more grist for the rumor mill.