What could Pope Francis’ resignation mean for the Catholic Church?

What could Pope Francis’ resignation mean for the Catholic Church?

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Almost a decade has passed since Pope Benedict XVI. was the first pope in 600 years to retire rather than die in office.

The idea of ​​two popes – one incumbent and one emeritus – intrigued some and alarmed others. It even became the subject of a heavily fictional bromance film starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce.

But three popes? That 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 to his retirement is open.” It wouldn’t be a disaster, he said.

His comments at the end of a six-day examination tour, during which the Holy Father was seen using a wheelchair, a walker and a cane, were not the first time Francis has hinted at his resignation.

Almost immediately after his election in March 2013 at the age of 76, Francis began alluding to a time when he would no longer be pope – either through death or retirement.

His health – which has been a concern since he had a lung removed when he was a teenager – has deteriorated in recent years. He has sciatica and last year he had surgery on part of his colon. It required a six-hour general anesthetic with ongoing side effects and a 10-day hospital stay. That, he said, was behind his reluctance to undergo further surgery to repair a strained ligament in his right knee, despite the near-constant pain it causes.

Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh said: “Soon after his election, Francis said that the resignation of Pope Benedict had transformed the institution of the papacy and that from now on all popes must consider whether to resign on grounds of infirmity.

“Modern popes undertake many grueling and arduous journeys. The extroverted nature of the contemporary papacy means endless meetings and mass gatherings, and a certain level of fitness is required.

“Additionally, modern medicine means you can continue living in a frail condition in a way you couldn’t before. Being elected for life must now be understood as: as long as one has vitality.”

Upon his resignation, Benedict assumed the title of Pope Emeritus. He continues to wear the traditional white cassock of the incumbent and lives in the Vatican in the Mater Ecclesiae monastery. Francis has already indicated that he would assume the title of Bishop Emeritus of Rome, live quietly outside the Vatican, and eschew the papal white robes.

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

The existence of two popes was not always easy. Ivereigh said: “When the pontificate emeritus was created effectively as a new institution, there was a concern that it would be confusing, that it might act as a focal point of opposition or as a contrast to the existing pope.

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

“Francis was incredibly patient and didn’t seem to have bothered him – but I think he took great note of it.”

In the short term, Francis is likely to further scale back trips abroad, although he has announced a visit to Kazakhstan in September and is keen to postpone a trip to South Sudan that was postponed earlier this year on medical advice.

A decision on retirement would come after careful consideration and discernment and would likely wait until Benedict – now 95 and extremely frail – had died, Ivereigh said.

“Every papal transition is traumatic. But Francis will know when the Church needs new energy and renewal. He will find the right time.”

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