Pope Francis’ recent health problems, worsening mobility issues and canceled events have fueled rumors that the head of the Catholic Church is set to follow his predecessor into early retirement.
Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was elected to the papacy in March 2013, after Pope Benedict XVI resigned at age 85, becoming the first pontiff to do so since Gregory XII in 1415.
Now some Vatican watchers believe Francis, 85, could become the second – although the pope’s adviser has brushed off the chatter.
Cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga called the retirement rumors nothing more than a “cheap soap opera”, according to Religious News Service.
So far, the Holy See has given no indication that the pontiff intends to give up the throne of St. Peter, rather than die in office – as has been the custom for the vast majority of bishops of Rome.
Still, speculation about a possible resignation has been swirling for months.
Last July, the Argentinian-born pope had the left part of his colon removed in a three-hour surgery because his intestine had shrunk.
Since then, his health seems to be declining and for the past month Francis has been using a wheelchair or a cane because of knee pain.
The octogenarian prelate would not want to undergo knee surgery – and reportedly told the bishops in May: “Rather than operate, I will resign”.
Francis has been open about his struggles, saying in his address to the general audience last week that older people need to come to terms with their physical limitations.
“When we’re old, we can’t do the same things we did when we were young: the body has a different rhythm, and we have to listen to the body and accept its limitations,” he said. “We all have them. I too have to use a cane now.
The Bishop of Rome also suffers from sciatica, which caused him to limp even before the knee problem arose.
A week before the pontiff’s remarks on old age, the Vatican canceled a planned July trip to Africa, citing his health concerns.
Rumor surrounding Francis’ possible retirement accelerated when he scheduled a meeting of cardinals in L’Aquila, central Italy, in late August.
The occasion will mark what is known as the ‘Feast of Forgiveness’, which was established by Pope Celestine V in 1294 – the same year the 13th-century pontiff resigned from the Holy See.
The celebrations will begin on August 28 – a day after Francis is due to name 21 new cardinals, who can vote at a conclave if he decides to leave the papacy.
Popes are chosen by the College of Cardinals, who are called to the Vatican for a meeting, followed by papal election, or conclave.
Before Francis’ predecessor Benedict XVI shocked the world by announcing his retirement in 2013 after eight years in power, he visited Celestina’s tomb at the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio in L’Aquila.
Benedict, who became known as “Pope Emeritus” after his resignation, continues to reside in Vatican City. At 95, he is the oldest person to serve as pope.