What could the withdrawal of Pope Francis mean for the Catholic Church?

What could the withdrawal of Pope Francis mean for the Catholic Church?

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It has been nearly a decade since Pope Benedict XVI became the first pontiff after 600 years to retire rather than die in office.

The idea of ​​two popes, one servant and one emeritus, intrigued some and disturbed others. He also became the subject of a highly fictionalized bromance film, starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce.

But three popes? This prospect was raised by Pope Francis last weekend when he told reporters on his return to Rome after a penitential visit to Canada that “the door is open” to his retirement. It wouldn’t be a catastrophe, he said.

His comments, at the end of a six-day trial trip during which the Holy Father was seen using a wheelchair, a walker and a cane in various ways, were not the first time that Francis has mentioned the retreat.

Almost as soon as he was elected, in March 2013, at the age of 76, Francis began to allude to a time when he would no longer be pope, by death or retirement.

His health – which has been a concern since his lung was removed as a teenager – has deteriorated in recent years. He has sciatica and last year underwent major surgery to remove a section of his large intestine. He required six hours of general anesthesia, which caused lasting side effects, and a 10-day hospital stay. This, he said, lies behind his reluctance to undergo further surgery to repair a strained ligament in his right knee, despite the near-constant pain it causes.

Pontifical biographer Austen Ivereigh said: “Immediately after his election, Francis said that the resignation of Pope Benedict had changed the institution of the papacy and that from now on all popes would have to reflect on whether to resign. for reasons of fragility.

“Modern popes make many grueling and demanding journeys. The extroverted nature of the contemporary papacy means endless encounters and gatherings of crowds and a certain level of physical fitness is required.

“Furthermore, modern medicine means that you can continue to live in a fragile state in a way that you could not before. Being elected for life now must be understood as: as long as you have vitality ”.

Resigning, Benedict took the title of pope emeritus. He continued to wear the traditional white cassock of the incumbent and lives in the Vatican at the Mater Ecclesiae monastery. Francis has already indicated that he would take the title of bishop emeritus of Rome, live peacefully outside the Vatican and avoid the white papal robes.

A couple of weeks ago, in a television interview, Francis described his predecessor as “holy and discreet”. But he added: “In the future, things should be outlined more or things should be made more explicit.”

The existence of two popes has not always been easy. Ivereigh said: “When the emeritus pontificate was created, effectively as a new institution, it was feared that it could create confusion, act as a center of opposition or contrast with the existing pope.

“I don’t think Benedict himself did anything to fuel it. But I think he’s allowed some kind of court around him. There have been many instances where the pope emeritus has actually been manipulated in the service of traditionalist agendas. He creates the feeling that there is a rivalry.

“Francis was incredibly patient about this and didn’t seem to bother him, but I think he took notice.”

In the short term, Francis is likely to cut back on overseas travel even though he announced a visit to Kazakhstan in September and wishes to reschedule a trip to South Sudan which was postponed earlier this year on medical advice.

A retirement decision would come after deep reflection and discernment and would likely wait until the death of Benedict – now 95 and extremely frail – Ivereigh said.

“Every papal passage is traumatic. But Francis will know when the Church will need new energy and renewal. He will find the right moment ”.

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