Death of former pope Benedict eases way for retirement of Francis

Benedict’s successor has long hinted that he might also retire but prospect of three popes – one serving and two emeritus – had been challenging

For the first time in almost 10 years, there will be only one pope. But that may be temporary.

Pope Benedict XVI’s death, nine years and 10 months after he unexpectedly stepped down, eases the way for his successor, Francis, to follow suit. It is a move he has long suggested he wants to make.

Benedict was the first pontiff for 600 years to retire rather than die in office – a shock move that was a gamechanger, according to Vatican experts.

Soon after Francis greeted hundreds of thousands of followers gathered in St Peter’s Square following his election, Benedict’s successor began hinting at the possibility of his own retirement.

He said he would like to see the resignation of popes become normalised, and later said he had a feeling his pontificate would be brief, describing his predecessor’s decision to step down as “courageous”.

Last summer, he raised the prospect again. On his return to Rome after a papal visit to Canada, he told reporters the “door is open” to his retirement. It would not be “a catastrophe”, he said.

But the prospect of three popes – one serving and two emeritus – has been challenging.

Despite a highly fictionalised bromance movie, The Two Popes, starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, some have sought to exploit differences and create divisions between Francis and Benedict.

The Vatican is a deeply factional place. There are many enemies of Pope Francis’s relatively progressive agenda with its focus on poverty, refugees and the climate crisis. This Christmas, he criticised “hunger for wealth and power”.

Some of Francis’s opponents have tried to rally support for conservative values around Benedict as an alternative figurehead.

In thinking about the possibility of retirement, Francis – who turned 86 earlier this month – will have considered the impact of two retired popes on his own successor.

With Benedict’s death, the path to retirement becomes a little easier. 13 March will be the 10th anniversary of Francis’s election as the Roman Catholic church’s 266th pontiff. Some time around then, or in the following months, perhaps after a key synod of bishops in the autumn, may seem an appropriate time for an announcement.

Francis’s health has been a concern for some years. He had a lung removed as a teenager, and has suffered from sciatica in recent years.

He has scaled back on gruelling foreign trips. During his visit to Canada in July, he used a wheelchair, a walker and a cane to get around after straining his right knee ligaments earlier in the year. The pope was clearly in pain as he lowered and raised himself from chairs.

He ruled out having surgery on his knee, saying there were “still traces” of the after-effects of more than six hours of anaesthesia in July 2021 to remove 13 inches of his large intestine. He spent 10 days in hospital after the operation.

The Canada trip had been a “bit of a test”, he told reporters. “At my age and with these limitations, I have to save [my energy] to be able to serve the church or, on the contrary, think about the possibility of stepping aside.”

With advances in medical science, the odds of a pope – or any other leader-for-life – remaining in office when they are frail or weary or even incapable have increased.

After he retired, Benedict took the title of pope emeritus, continued to wear the incumbent’s traditional white cassock and lived within the Vatican at the Mater Ecclesiae monastery.

In contrast, Francis has previously indicated that he would take the title of emeritus bishope of Rome, live quietly outside the Vatican, and eschew the papal white robes.


Harriet Sherwood

The GuardianTramp

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