Catholic world awash with speculation of Pope Francis’ resignation, but scepticism is called for

Catholic world awash with speculation of Pope Francis’ resignation, but scepticism is called for
Pope Francis arrives for the weekly Papal General Audience in Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City, on 27 April 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / FABIO FRUSTACI)

For the past few weeks, speculation has been swirling in Rome and around the Catholic world that Pope Francis’ resignation is imminent. Francis is unpredictable and surprising, but here is why we should, perhaps, be sceptical of the rumours.

Since Easter (April 2022) Pope Francis’ mobility has been limited and he has been seen many times in a wheelchair. He has not presided over several public masses in recent months even though he has been present. He remains seated on a chair while other senior cardinals take the lead.

Several events have fuelled the rumours of an imminent resignation.

First, the 85-year-old pope has been struggling with his knee. Although the Vatican has not made public what the exact ailment is, we know that Pope Francis is suffering. He has been seen wincing in pain more than once in public as he moves. Some believe the problem is the actual kneecap, others say that it is all the ligaments around the knee.

The pope suffers from sciatica, which causes him to limp, and this, it is believed, has led to a problematic knee.

Second, in a surprise move in late May, Pope Francis announced that he would be creating 21 new cardinals in August. While there is nothing unusual about him naming cardinals, the fact that Francis has chosen to announce their names in May and only have the consistory (the service in which the cardinals are “installed”) in August, is out of sync with custom. The time lapse between the announcement and ceremony is unusually long. 

To add to this, all the cardinals of the world have been asked to be in Rome  in August. The reason given is that the pope, as part of his ongoing efforts to reform the administration of the Catholic Church, wants to present the Vatican’s new constitution to the cardinals. Some of the reform includes imposing limits on chiefs of Vatican offices and allowing women to head them up. Some speculation is that calling them all together suggests a big and unusual announcement.

It has also been intimated that the pope has called all the cardinals together so that they can get to know each other (Covid halted many in-person meetings). He wants to build some familiarity before the next conclave – the gathering of cardinals that elects a pope. Hence, some analysts conclude, a resignation might be on the cards.

Many of the new cardinals are seen to be key allies of Francis. Several people think that Francis is setting up his successor by ensuring that the bulk of the cardinals are now his appointees and of his mindset and vision. Only three of the new cardinals come from the Vatican Curia – the central administration of the Catholic Church. Many of the new cardinals come from far-flung places often overlooked and places where Catholics are a minority. A good example of this is Giorgio Marengo, currently archbishop of Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. There are about 1,400 Catholics in the central Asian country that hosts eight parishes.

Francis has (again) passed over places which would traditionally have had a cardinal in place. He has chosen places that have never traditionally had cardinals. An example of this is Philadelphia in the US. Francis has given the so-called “red hat” (called a “red hat” because of the colour of the skull cap cardinals wear) to San Diego and not an archbishopric like Philadelphia or San Francisco.

Third, the pope announced that he would be visiting L’Aquila, the Abruzzo town ravaged by an earthquake in 2009, for the Perdonanza Celestiniana festival in August. During this visit he is set to go to the cathedral that hosts the tomb of Celestine V. Celestine was a pope who resigned in 1294 after just five months as pope.

Benedict XVI visited the tomb in 2009, leaving behind his pallium (a vestment worn by archbishops and the pope). Some commentators suggest this was a symbolic gesture ahead of his own resignation in 2013.

Fourth, the Vatican announced that Francis has cancelled, due to knee pain, his trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan scheduled for 2 to 7 July 2022.

Despite the narrative, there are several reasons to believe that, at this moment, Francis has no intention of resigning.

To begin with, Pope Francis last week said that resigning “does not cross his mind”. Meeting with bishops from Brazil, and asked about his health, he replied that he intends to continue in his role as head of the Catholic Church “for as long as God allows it”.

Despite his limited mobility the pope’s daily schedule remains packed. Although in a wheelchair, he remains firmly set on keeping his appointments. His knee problems have not impacted his energy and vision, or slowed him down.  

The meeting of cardinals and the consistory in August might be out of sync with tradition but this could be for practical reasons. Rome is generally quiet in August; it is holiday time. The pope’s schedule is generally lighter and so he might have more time to spend with the cardinals. Francis may also have wanted to ensure that cardinals did not travel twice to Rome – for the consistory and a meeting – so, to cut costs, he combined them.

His announcement of new cardinals in late May, and a consistory soon thereafter, might have prevented many cardinals who have busy schedules from travelling to Rome. Giving them more time meant that diaries could be planned so that they could travel to Rome, and all be gathered together, both new and old.    

Then there are his own travel plans. The pope has announced other travel plans for 2022. He plans to go to Canada, and he has a trip planned to Kazakhstan in September. There are also rumours of a few international trips he intends undertaking in 2023.

Francis has called for a worldwide Synod of the Church in October 2023. The process of preparation is under way. It is unlikely that he would step down before this Synod as many of the issues to be discussed and deliberated on are ones that are close to his own vision for the Church.

The fact that former Pope Benedict XVI is still alive is another reason that it is unlikely that Pope Francis will quit soon. Having two retired popes could be problematic. Why? Some Vatican sources say that Francis intends to make some changes around the role of a retired pope. He cannot do this while Benedict is still alive. These changes might include the title given to a former pope, how he dresses and where he lives. Benedict has retained the title “Pope” in his name and has continued to dress like the pope and live in the Vatican. Sources say Francis does not want this to become the norm.

Besides these events sources close to the pope have strongly denied that there has been any talk of resignation. One close papal aide said that this is “fake news” and “not in the mind of the Holy Father”.

In the past week, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, who is close to Pope Francis, dismissed the speculation as “wishful thinking” on the part of those who oppose the pope, or as the result of misinformation.

He also said that the pope recently told the Italian bishops that “the pope governs the church with the head, not with the legs”. He called to mind that Franklin D Roosevelt was elected president of the United States four times and governed for 14 years from a wheelchair.

Pope Francis has proved unpredictable and surprised the world many times. However, it seems like quitting is not likely … any time soon. DM

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ is the Director of the Jesuit Institute of South Africa. He entered the Jesuits in 2001 and was ordained in 2006.


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